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Friday, August 10, 2012

Do you need an IPA? Or do you just want one?

Following up on the comments on my recent post about Neshaminy Brewing -- generated by the statement "...the IPA that every noob craft drinker insists that a brewer make..." -- I posted the following on Facebook:
Brewers, beer sellers (wholesale and retail), beer drinkers: a question for you. Does a craft brewer NEED to have an IPA in their lineup? Given that there are literally thousands of IPAs already on the market, can you make it without one? As a drinker, do you want every local brewery to do an IPA?
The conversation, to say the least, has been brisk. There's clearly a lot of pressure on brewers to make an IPA -- it's a constant request for those who start out without one -- and Greg Ouelette, the brewer at Martha's Exchange in Nashua, NH, noted that while he always has one on offer, when he replaced it with "a nice pale ale," it sold slower than the IPA on before it and the IPA he put on after it.

Some mention that what they'd really like to see is a good crisp lager (which brought up the inevitable "pilsner is harder to make than throwing a ton of hops in another IPA" argument), while others have noted that maybe saison/farmhouse is the next 'must have' style, moving up already. Might be something to that, God knows it's been true in Philly for a few years already.

So...what do you think? Does a brewer need to offer an IPA year-round? What does it mean if they don't? Does your opinion change if the IPA is a 'me-too,' or if it's something quite different? What if it's a Belgian, white, red, black, green, or blue IPA? (What if it's one of those but the brewer wises up and calls it something else?)

Let's open up the whole damn can of worms here. I love drinking IPA -- and was terribly disappointed when an IPA growler sample I recently got from a new brewpub smelled like burnt rubber and cowshit -- but I like drinking a lot of different beers. I applaud a brewer who wants to make something other than what everyone else is making; really, really, really love to see that, and making just another IPA is just...boring. But I can't wait to try Pretty Things' new Meadowlark IPA, which sounds quite tasty. But I was also excited by Susquehanna Brewing's Goldencold Lager, one of the best American-brewed hellesbiers I've had.

  • Does a brewer run the risk of losing attention by not doing an IPA? (Or does it matter more what the beers they DO make are?) 
  • Is the lust for IPA simple-minded and similar to the lust for hot sauce? (Or is it more an effect of the newer strains of hops that add great citrus/pine/floral/tropical fruit flavors and aromas to beers, or maybe of new technologies that allow fresher hop flavors at the tap?)
  • Will IPAs peak and fall -- as raspberry beers did in the 90s -- or are they going to take over the category? (And if they're good IPAs...what does that mean to you? What's it mean to the brewers?)
  • Is style consolidation inevitable? (Or are we seeing style diversification with all the Belgian, white, red, black, etc. "IPA" styles expanding in the market?)
Discussion is encouraged. For myself, I think IPAs are frickin' great. I think the [insert descriptor here] IPAs are to be judged on individual merit, but the nomenclature is silly. And I love a wide, wide variety of beers, and would be unhappy if that were crimped by the popularity of IPA. 


BeerBrarian said...

Related: Making an IPA has become de rigueur, which is French for “prescribed by fashion.” If you make beer, odds are someone’s going to ask about your IPA. It’s expected, if not downright required.

Anonymous said...

A few random thoughts: I dont drink many ipa's, dont dig the bitterness but I drink one on occasion but would not miss it in a line-up.

There is something about the term IPA that attracts people that dont drink or know a lot about beer. I've noticed many beer neophytes and even friends that are not into beer have a knee-jerk reaction to a big confusing list of beers of saying "ipa" as a style they like. I sometimes follow this up with "do you like bitter beer?" and they say no. I've also noticed these folks tend to like the term "pale ale" because generally they are afraid of dark beer.

I can do without these "creative" hybrid styles like "belgian hefe sour IPA aged in bourbon barrel with currants added"

dave said...

For me, IPA is the style I am most used to and a style I feel I have the best "understanding" of. When a new brewery hits the shelves their IPA is what I try first for those reasons. I'm not looking for the IPA to knock my proverbial socks off, just one that is competently made and I enjoy the taste of and then I move onto other beers in the brewery's repertoire. Now if they don't make an IPA, it will probably take me more time to actually try one of their beers, with either me feeling adventurous to try it or the beer is recommended by someone I trust in beer (known bartender, friend, etc). This is what happened with Pretty Things with Jack D'Or being a suggestion by a bartender when it first hit the taps at Deep Ellum... Meadowlark is good by the way and if that happened to have been their first beer I would still love Pretty Things. If the IPA is not competently made in my mind (flavors off or something), it will take some time for me to give the brewery another shot.

Though I appreciate Saisons, the style is so open for American brewers (they seem to throw any type of herb, spice, etc into the things) its tough to judge what you are going to get (again either I have to feel adventurous or get a suggestion from a trusted person to try it). In my mind IPA provides the "I know what I am going to get" (within reason, taking into effect West Coast, East Coast, English) stake in the ground.

Terry L said...

Personally, the breweries I've been most excited about lately have been going outside the norm and not producing IPAs. For instance, Night Shift in MA who's going way outside the norm. Or, Notch. Or Jolly Pumpkin. I specifically look for breweries that are getting creative. That all said, if you're looking at mainstream appeal, perhaps the IPA is still important. But with a growing audience of craft beer fans who are getting past the hop bombs and spreading their appreciation to a growing variety of styles (i.e. Saison), perhaps it is possible to make a go at it without an IPA. At least for the smaller brewers. Although, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams both made it to the top without an IPA.

Zac said...

Ask breweries like Stillwater or Jolly Pumpkin.

Brian said...

No, I don't think brewers need to brew an IPA, but depending on their ambitions, it may make a lot of sense to.

For example... a brew pub, I think needs to brew an IPA, to be taken seriously. When you go into a place that only serves their beer, you want to be able to get any style you want and since IPA's are so popular, it'd basically be suicide not to have one.

A new brewery opening up... There's going to be pressure to have an IPA. However, with so many breweries out there these days, a new brewery, needs to think differentiation. i.e. what will set them apart. Here, the first step to disaster is to check the boxes: amber, IPA, brown ale, light ale (transition to micro beer), etc...

I like when a brewery picks a theme or signature style. Yards has a strong English influence, Stoudt's has a strong German, Allagash - Belgian, Dogfish Head - well... they have their own style.

btw... I'll add that I really hate when the whole industry goes in the same direction. I'd add the whole 2000's Belgian Wit craze of summer beers in there. You used to be able to get a Hefeweizen on draft, then all the micro's decided they needed to do a white ale with orange peel and coriander. Then the local bar would have hoegarden and two micro copies... overkill! (steps off soap box)

Scott Spolverino said...

Honestly, I think it depends on what you're looking to do.

If you're looking to sell beer, then yes, an IPA is necessary.

If you're looking to experiment with beer, than no, it's not necessary.

I know people will say "every brewery's goal is to sell beer." This is true. However, there are breweries out there that seem to develop a core range and then stick with it. It's a solid range, with usually an IPA, a brown ale, a stout, maybe a rotating seasonal like Oktoberfest, and a flagship lager. The beer is good, it sells well, it makes bank...but it's not experimental. It's the same thing in the brew tanks day in, day out. Breweries like Clown Shoes (awesome artwork and names but not VERY experimental...yet), Abita, Long Trail, Iron Horse.

For those that want to build themselves as an "experimental" brewer, not necessary. Sure, you may see an IPA on there that's brewed with grapefruit and orange peels, eight kinds of hops, and on a full moon but that's something they wanted to do. Breweries like Dogfish Head, Deschutes, Crooked Stave...all doing crazy stuff without NEEDING to have an IPA (and if they do have it, it's pretty crazy like the 120 Minute).

But that's just me. I could be wrong.

Lew Bryson said...

Pretty sure 60 Minute IPA is Dogfish Head's best seller...

Scott Spolverino said...

Lew: Yeah, it probably is. But they didn't stop and say "Hey, 60 Minute sells really well. Let's just focus on that." Instead, they cranked out Theobroma, Sah-Tea, Midas Touch, and all sorts of other crazy stuff. They COULD have just sat back with the 60/90/120 Minute and just said "Okay, this'll be what we do." But they keep making crazy shit.

Lew Bryson said...

Oh, no question. But they didn't START with those, either. And the question isn't "do you ONLY do an IPA," it's "do you HAVE to do an IPA."
A related anecdote, which I believe has some bearing on the whole discussion. I was doing bar visits in Buffalo when I was writing New York Breweries, and every single place I visited had -- of course -- Buffalo wings.

I finally asked one bar owner, 'do you HAVE to serve wings if you're a bar in Buffalo?'

"Of course not!" he said. "Unless you want to stay open more than three months..."

Jeff Alworth said...

You have mounted a horse that whinnies a great deal like the one I was riding last week.

On the West Coast, you have to do an IPA. Have to. The sole exception I've seen are lager breweries like Chuckanut. Of the nearly 300 breweries in the Pac NW, there are two of those. Everyone else, including Belgian-style breweries, has IPAs.

I'd say the nut of the issue is this: a quite large group of Americans have discovered craft beer* and a lot of casual fans prefer IPAs. Saisons, helleses, cask bitter--these are for the geeks. Unless they're very small, breweries need the mass market and in the craft segment, the mass market is IPA.

When you think about it, it could be a LOT worse.

Erlangernick said...

Couldn't give a rat's knob about 95% or more of American IPAs, and I'm an Oregonian hophead. Too much malt mucking up those glorious, expensive hop additions. Especially crystal malt, which has no place at all in a citric-hopped beer....SNCA, I'm looking at you.

Half-IPA, now *that's* what every brewer should offer. All the hops but half the malt.

Raspberry beer had a peak? We had like 3 in the nineties in OR. Aside from the Cleveland-brewed Jim Koch "Oregon Originals", of course. And McMenamins raz stout - that was fab.

The old, pre-sellout Deschutes of the nineties also had no IPA, except for at the 95 OBF and then occasionally at the brewpub. Went downhill from there and I had to emigrate.

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

The IPA, for the brewery or brewpub, has become in effect what the bacon cheeseburger, or the steak-with-potato platter, has become for the restaurants. It's a big, bold, assertive yet safe option; they sell really well; it's fairly easy to do and hard to screw up, but hard to do REALLY well; it's hard to find a "family" or non-specialty restaurant that doesn't have some variation of it available; etc. If only IPAs clogged your arteries as well, the analogy would be complete.

Scott Spolverino said...

Yeah, but they didn't do an (true) IPA until 9 years into the business (India Brown Ale was a brown ale blended with an IPA and Scotch Ale so I don't think that counts). They started with Punkin in '94, Shelter Pale and Chicory Stout in '95, Raisin D'Etre in '98, Midas Touch, India Brown, and World Wide Stout in '99. They didn't produce the 90 minute until 2001. So they built their business on innovative stuff (Raisin, Chicory Stout, Midas Touch, World Wide) and then added an IPA. So, no, I wouldn't say it was necessary for them to have one to be successful. I think because they made a good IPA that hit the market at a time when interest in IPAs was coming about was what made it their best seller. Finding that niche market of extreme, experimental beer styles made it sell well. Not just because it was an IPA. It was innovative.

I personally feel (and hope) that the age of the IPA dies. I find the Farmyard Ales, wild fermented, Brett infused funky beers to be far more fun and scientifically cool than just throwing in truckloads of humulus lupulus.

PS: My Captcha is ligIPA. Even computers are in on the craze.

Lew Bryson said...

Kinda beside the point, Scott. Really talking about NOW. Not "did a brewery have to have an IPA," but "DOES a brewery have to have an IPA?" It's about now.

Trevor said...

I can attest to the fact that when we visit bars peddling our wares, the first thing we were asked is "where's your IPA."

We took almost 6 months to release it, but I wish we'd had it earlier. As biased as I am, I love our IPA, and customers seem to agree, but that beer not only gets us into bars that are more reluctant to take a chance on a new brewery, but it also gets us back into the rotation for some of our other styles (Kolsch, Hefe etc).

As a category, it's growing exponentially, but the demand is there, and that's what it really comes down to, people WANT this style.

Of all of our (Evil Genius) beers, our Hefe is actually my favorite, but I also know that the IPA will outsell that Hefe by many multiples, and I'm totally ok with that. I want to make beers that people WANT to drink, not force people to want the styles that I want to make.

I also love the innovation in the style. I just picked up a White IPA that was aged in Brett, and I cant wait to try it.

I think any brewery that doesn't do one, will find it more difficult to get off the ground than if they make one (assuming high quality products).

Ron Pattinson said...

I find IPA's pretty boring. I doubt I drink more than a dozen in a year. None of my favourite breweries, except Fullers, brewws one.

I'd say the IPA craze is approaching its peak. My guess would be that within 10 years it'll become as fashionable as Dark Mild.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a IPA drinker.there only one IPA i even like made by Timber Creek Tap and table brew pub.but IPA's have a hardcore it's a given that they have to make a IPA to apses the beer geeks

Bill said...

I don't think you _need_ one if you're a brewpub so long as you have something to serve when people say they like IPAs: "Here, try this." So, something hoppy, but it could have different malt profiles. If you're a package brewer, it certainly couldn't hurt to have one, but you don't need one. Is there a year-round Sam Adams IPA yet? Chicago has a lager-only brewery. They have a Latin American culture-inspired brewery that doesn't have an IPA (or if it does, it's not a "traditional" one). Half Acre doesn't have a year-round IPA.

That being said, if it's what folks want to drink, and if its what the brewers want to drink now and again, and if you want the challenge to make a good one... I mean, Ommegang or Unibroue or Allagash don't need to make one, but if you make ales in non-Belgian styles, why not make one?

JP said...

Let's hear it for the good old Pale Ale a most maligned and ignored if not true American style that has fallen out of flavor (sic) due to the popularity of its more extreme cousin. I think one finds much more variance and uniqueness between pales and more flavor in general as subtleties cannot hide among the bitterness.

Jackorain said...

When I hear an upstart brewery or brewpub say things like "We only brew beers we like to drink"(and I have heard this many times), I think "okay, I hope you like what everybody likes" and that includes an IPA!

If I was to open a restaurant, I wouldn't serve only what I like to eat, I would serve what the people want to eat. If I opened a clothing shop, I wouldn't sell only clothes I want to wear.

If you are in business to sell stuff you need to offer what people want.

So there it is, my answer, yes, in this current beer climate, an upstart brewery (and particularly a brewpub) needs an IPA and a "standard" one at that, not just one or more of the new new black, white, red, green, Belgian, German "IPAs"

Unknown said...

Had I read this two months ago I would have said yes, not having an IPA on tap would be a detriment to a brewery / brewpub. I work for the recently opened Round Guys Brewery in Lansdale. When one of the owners /brewmaster, Scott, sat me down for the interview and asked what I liked to drink I listed off a bunch of beers, majority being IPA's. He basically said, so you're an IPA guy, we don't brew an IPA, maybe a very hoppy ale but not an IPA. When I asked why he said it was because there are all ready so many great IPA's out there to choose from and that they did not feel the need to make one. At first this seemed crazy, but as I continue to work here I realize them not having an IPA is pushing people who would usually gravitate toward this style to try one of the 8 constantly changing beers we have on tap. Many customers who are looking for an IPA will go toward our black IPA which isn't the golden hop bomb that they may be searching for, but it challenges them to try new and different beers. I think the fact that we don't serve an IPA is developing our customers into more well rounded beer drinkers. It gives them chance to talk with us about the beer and learn about the different styles, and also gives the brewery a unique dispostion among the local beer community... the guys that don't have an IPA.
Not having an IPA does not seem to have a negative effect at all! Hope you can make it in too see us some time soon Lew, I'd love to meet you! We're just a few miles away from Prism Brewing Company so the trip is well worth it!