Why IPA? IPA popularity hops ahead as craft beer trend continues in Colorado
June 30, 2014
Walk into almost any craft brewery in America, pick up a beer menu, and whether it's a pages-long missive of experimental beers with clever names or a simple list on a single page, chances are it will include at least one India Pale Ale.
Chances are good that it will list even more.
As the craft brewing industry has blossomed in the United States, so has the popularity of the IPA, a trend that is only increasing, according to statistics put out by the Brewers Association.
In 2013, IPAs experienced a volume growth of 41 percent, the highest of any beer style. At this year's World Beer Cup in Denver, the American-style India Pale Ale category led the field with the most entries at 223, followed far behind by pale ale with 121.
So what is it about IPAs that has captured the collective imagination and kept hundreds of self-proclaimed hop heads clamoring for more?
INCREDIBLY POPULAR ALE
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"It's evolution," said Cory Forster, of the IPA popularity trend. People start off drinking lighter brews like pilsners or wheat beers, until "over time their palate expands."
Forster was formerly the head brewer at Wolf Rock Brewing Co. and the Dillon Dam Brewery, and is currently splitting his time between Dillon and starting a new brewery in Silverthorne, called the Bakers' Brewery.
"It's what people want," he said. "We literally named the (Dillon) Dam IPA 'Here's Your Dam IPA' because the demand was so intense for it that we felt like we didn't have a choice anymore, we had to have an IPA on tap.
"Not that any of us are complaining," he added. "Because that's what we like to drink, too."
Jason Ford and David Axelrod, co-owners of Breckenridge's newest brewery, Broken Compass Brewing, said that they, too, have noticed an incredible demand for IPAs.
"It's crazy," Axelrod said. "Every tasting party that we've had, we can't keep the IPA on. It just disappears, over every other beer."
While the brewers' opinions vary on pinning down exactly why people keep coming back for more IPAs, they do reach consensus on one point — they're delicious.
"Hops, they make a tasty beer," said Backcountry Brewery head brewer Alan Simons with a laugh. "People love it, keep searching it out, that bitterness. It's a unique experience and you keep looking for more and more of those experiences."
HAPPY FOR HOPS
Hops are one of the main components of any beer, contributing flavor and aroma depending on how many, what variety and when they are added in the process. Because of the strength of the hops' flavor, some feel that brewing a decent IPA can, in some ways, be easier than brewing a lighter beer.
"To do it right is obviously not easy, but you can throw a lot of hops at a beer sometimes and hide some other flaws that you might get in production," said Simons. The brewing process is fairly quick as well, he added. "They're not that difficult to produce. You can have a good IPA in three to four weeks from start to finish, from grain to glass."
"That is definitely what the old-school brewers will tell you, is that it takes more skill and more control to brew a properly balanced lager, like a pilsner," he said. "You can pick a bunch of hops and throw it at something and it will taste hoppy, and chances are it will taste pretty good. I think there's some potential for using the wrong hops, but most people will figure it out."
The difference between brewing an average IPA and a great IPA is balance, according to Axelrod.
"It's really important that (the hops) complement each other rather than conflict, and also that they complement the base of the beer as well."
When hops are added to the boil in the brewing process, the acid they produce creates the bitter flavor, he said. With a technique called dry-hopping, hops are instead added during fermentation at the end of the brewing process, which gives the beer more of the floral and other aromatic qualities and less of the bitter taste.
"One of the biggest things on an IPA, for me, is the nose, it's the aroma and that will also depend on what kind of glass it's served in," he said. "If it's served in a traditional American pint glass, it's not really going to capture the aromas like it should or like it could; you're not going to get the full flavor of the beer in that type of a glass. If you have a glass that curves in at the top, it will capture some of that so when you go take a sip of it, you'll get a lot more nose to it, a lot more aroma. Just like a wine glass, it captures that same smell. That, to me, is a big part of the taste experience."
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
As it turns out, one of the consequences of IPA popularity is a shortage of hops.
"IPA hops can be hard to come by," Simons said. "You have to plan two to three years in advance to get them."
The shortage comes not only from the greater amount of hops necessary to create an IPA (anywhere from two to six or more different types) but the increasing demand for new and experimental hop varieties.
"There's a lot of room for innovation and a lot of room for different flavors," said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. Brewers are inventing different styles of IPA that weren't around years ago, such as white IPAs (hopped-up Belgian whit-style beers), black IPAS (hopped-up black ales) and session IPAs (light session-like beers with hoppy IPA flavoring but low alcohol by volume).
"It is pretty difficult these days," Axelrod said. "We've had to change the recipes a little bit because of hop shortages. There are certain hops that you just can't get."
But there are always new options to look into and play with as well.
"Every year new hops are developed. They cross-breed strains," Ford said. "That's a wonderful thing."
Popularity of the IPA can also be attributed to Americans' love of hops. The northwest region in particular is known for its strong and hoppy IPAs.
"(They) took it to a new level," Axelrod said.
"All beer uses hops, so it could've been anybody that did it," said Ford. "They were the first to really think, 'How far can we take the hop thing?'"
The bitter hop flavor is often associated with the adjective 'American-style' nowadays.
"That elevated hop level would certainly be an American quality, as would the certain hop characteristic, particularly the citrusy type of hops," Gatza said. "A lot of the German hops tend to be more floral … whereas in England what you'd find are a lot of hop varieties that tend to be more woody or earthy in their nature, but over here a lot of varieties have become popular in that citrusy flavor."
Although more styles of beer are made every year, with brewers experimenting with hop varieties, barrel aging, different ingredients and styles from the past, for now, the IPA reigns supreme.