The future of IPA? Outlook hazy

Ten years ago, you could walk into a pub and order an IPA, and for the most part, know exactly what you were going to get: a bitter, amber-colored ale with notes of pine and maybe grapefruit pith.

Today, asking for simply “an IPA” is a fool’s errand. The top-selling style in craft beer — by far — spans such a broad expanse of flavor, color, clarity and alcohol content that it’s nearly impossible to describe with brevity to a new beer drinker.

But whatever you call it, however you describe it, beers with IPA slapped on the label more or less define the craft beer industry. And few see that changing.

“Where IPA is going is anyone’s guess,” says Jason Pratt, a senior marketing manager of innovations for MillerCoors and a Master Cicerone. “But I think a couple of things have become clear: Consumers love IPAs, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They’re willing to accept beers that fall well outside of the typical style standard as IPAs. And brewers are going to continue to stretch IPA outside of its typical boundaries.”

The logic is straightforward. The style, however expansive the definition, is a powerhouse, accounting for some 35 percent of craft beer sales dollars, per a recent analysis cited in Beer Marketer’s Insights (subscription required.) Thirteen of the top 25 new craft beer brands of 2018 identify themselves as IPAs, per IRI data through Nov. 18. Seven of those describe themselves hazy, juicy or New England-style. Two have labels proclaiming hemp flavors.

Neither style was part of the zeitgeist just three years ago.

“The recent IPA run has been nothing short of remarkable,” says Ed Novak, director of strategy and sales operations for Tenth and Blake, the MillerCoors craft and prestige import arm. “At the beginning of the decade, IPA was not even in the top 5 craft styles in terms of volume.  Today, IPA is not only the largest craft style, but its share is double that of the next largest style, and shows no signs of slowing down.”

What does IPA mean anymore?

Creative and boundary-pushing brewers have stretched the definition of IPA so far that many say the term means nothing at all anymore. Beers labeled as IPA could range from black to light golden in color, from perfect clarity to a thick murkiness, from enamel-ripping bitterness to possessing nearly no bitterness at all. And it could be as dry as Champagne to as sweet as fruit juice and range anywhere from just more than 4 percent alcohol by volume to north of 10 percent.

“It’s a long-running joke among brewers: When something’s not selling, just call it IPA,” says Scott Metzger, who founded San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing a decade ago. “Today, you don’t see as much hand-wringing over what to call new types of beer, like New England IPAs. I think that’s a sign that many people have come to accept that IPA doesn’t really mean anything. If it has any sort of modifier, we know we’re not talking about IPA — at least how we once knew it.”

The reason? Marketing, more or less. When this wave of craft beer began about a decade ago, IPA and pale ale led the way. Those two styles were the antithesis of the beers dominating the market at the time (and still, today.) “IPA was the symbol of craft beer,” Metzger says. “There’s this magical magnetism to the term that makes people outside craft want to be inside that circle. It’s the pinnacle of what craft is in some respects.”

And the market responded. Instead of calling a beer a hoppy Pilsner or an American porter, they came up with India pale lager and black IPA, Metzger says. Beers known as NEIPAs share little in common with the standard-bearing West Coast IPAs, aside from the presence of a hefty dose of hops (even though how the hops are used in those beers is radically different.) And lower-ABV American pale ales now carry the label “session IPA” or, simply IPA, like Founders All-Day IPA.

Many of those “styles” came and went. Black IPAs are difficult to find in 2018. IPLs didn’t have staying power. Other variations, such as Belgian IPAs are few and far between today. “Over the past few years, distinct IPA sub-styles emerge nearly annually.  For a while, session and fruit IPAs saw accelerated growth and significant share of style gains,” Novak says. Consumers have since moved on to new takes on the veritable style.

IPA, for better or worse, is now the blank canvas on which brewers innovate. It’s the descriptor brewers apply to beers that are either close enough to the style or something new altogether, such as “Milkshake IPAs” or even some NEIPAs.

So far it’s worked. But, some in the industry say, there’s a danger that the broader the definition gets, the more the equity in the name is chipped away.

“Once you give up your nomenclature, you have nothing,” Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of the 2011 Oxford Companion to Beer, said in a recent Tweet. “Modern IPA is a great example. Ten years ago you could tell people what ‘IPA’ meant. I challenge you to describe ‘IPA’ to a newbie now … That is a massive loss of cultural power. And once you lose that power it’s gone.”

All aboard the haze train

But for now, the IPA train keeps chugging along. And the variations du jour are sweet and hazy and the inevitable answer to them called brut IPAs, which are light, highly effervescent and finish bone-dry, à la Champagne.

Where it will be in five years? Even two years?

“Based on the trends we’re seeing, it stands to reason that IPAs will continue to see sub-style evolution, and we are starting to see that with offerings such as cryo-hopped and brut IPAs,” Novak says.

Jim Vorel, a staff writer with Paste Magazine who closely follows the beer industry, agrees. The future, he says, is likely to look somewhat like the present. “Will IPA continue as the dominant style in craft? I don’t see what could possibly change that,” he says.

One thing is for certain, he says: The days of ordering an IPA and expecting it to taste bitter, resinous and piney are over.

“Some of this stuff is going to pass, but I think all different types of IPAs will continue to exist,” Vorel says. “When you walk into a bar and ask for an IPA, the natural follow-up from the bartender should be ‘What kind of IPA.’”