What is an IPA beer: It’s an unseasonably hot summer afternoon in Los Angeles. Like “Chinatown” hot, and all I want is an ice-cold American lager, preferably in a frosty mug. About two blocks from the beach, I spot Beach and Brew, one of those self-serve, pour-your-own craft beer spots where you can drink an ounce of 70 different beers if you’re all in on fear of commitment.
I step to the lineup of taps, expecting to find a selection of light, crispy beers one would expect in a bar with “Beach” in its name. Instead, this bar’s all stars are a collection of IPAs that sound less like beers and more like prison yard nicknames. “Hopoclypse,” “Ex-Boyfriend From Hell,” and “405 Road Rage” kick off the parade, each successive tap screaming from behind its LED screen, “This is gonna be about as pleasant as a colonoscopy! 9.7% ABV.”
To the layman, naming beers after rush-hour traffic and human restraining orders might not seem like keen marketing savvy. But not in the anything-goes world of IPAs, where craft beers compete to see who can do crazier shit to bigger extremes, like a hoppy version of “Jackass” with slightly less vomiting. But why have IPAs become the Crossfit of craft beer? And what is it about this particular style that lends itself to pushing the laws of physics to add as many hops as possible? It’s a combination of unbridled freedom and a forgiving ingredient, with a little bit of raw human nature thrown in.
IPAs were the original craft beer
Once upon a time, a scrappy little country called the United States had all sorts of regional beer styles, unrestrained by old-world traditions like our fledgling democratic government. Then came Prohibition, and those regional styles were effectively wiped out. When beer came back, it was quickly dominated by the macro brews we got to know in middle school.
“After prohibition, we had a few breweries basically making variations on the same beer, which was, by design, flavor neutral,’” says Franklin Winslow, co-owner and brewmaster at Tarboro Brewing Company in North Carolina. “At some point, craft beer came along and started adding hops to things, and realizing there’s all these interesting flavors.”
Hops lent themselves to the creation of hop-heavy IPAs, which became the first widely produced style from what were then called “microbreweries.” For many, a Pete’s Wicked or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the first beer they tried that wasn’t mass-produced in Milwaukee. And IPAs and craft beer were almost synonymous. “There are people who think when you go to a (craft) brewery, you have to order an IPA,” says Drew Gillespie, president of Pike Brewing Company in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. “IPAs are now half of craft beer sales. You can release pale ales all day, but IPAs represent the pinnacle of flavor innovation.”
Loose definitions lead to great innovations
There also aren’t many rules dictating what an IPA is supposed to be, and while a decade ago ”IPA” may have meant a super-hoppy West Coast style, today fruit-forward juicy IPAs are just as common. Because the definition of IPA is loose, breweries across the country are free to create their own interpretation, bringing back the sense of regional identity that we lost during prohibition.
“Everywhere I go, there is a solid presence of IPA, with a local twist, the local flair,” says Paul Frederickson, Dogfish Head’s lead brewer in Miami. “It’s a forgiving beer style that we can stretch the boundaries of, like a canvas you can paint with aromatic American hops.”
But in 2022, craft breweries can get creative with all kinds of beers, as anyone sipping a boysenberry sour or bacon chocolate porter well knows. So why do IPAs like Pliny the Elder and Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA have a cult status that spurs robust secondary markets? It’s because IPAs still allow more room for innovation than any other style. And as people are hungry for new things in limited quantities, it drives a passionate following. “People are always looking for newness and variety,” says Gillespie. “The hops are what provide that. Malt might be the backbone, but hops are the spice. Grain can only add so many flavors, and hops do more for flavor in beer than grapes do for wine.”
When breweries come out with something new, different, and delicious, people want it. And that creates obsessive demand from another basic human desire: Exclusivity. “When we came out with 90 (minute), and then 120, there was this exclusivity to it because it was something different and something no one had ever seen before,” says Dogfish Head’s Frederickson. “People fell in love with the bold flavor IPAs brought, so now everyone goes into a deep dive and combinations of hops varieties, blends, and timings. And as long as the customer base keeps demanding various iterations of IPAs, breweries will keep making them.”
Brewing up IPAs
Keeping up with IPA lovers’ insatiable appetite for something new is now part of the craft beer business model. In Buffalo, John Cimperman’s 42 North Brewing puts out a Borderland IPA that’s become a citywide staple. But he still has to constantly crank out experimental batches to keep his customers happy. “We know that every six weeks or so we need to launch something different to make sure we fill the needs of the hop heads,” Cimperman says. “So every six to eight weeks we launch an experimental IPA and brand it under the umbrella of Hopology.”
Winslow compares the obsession with Duke basketball fans, who spend days camping out for tickets less than 90 minutes from his brewery. “When there’s something that you love, and an experience you want to be a part of, whether that’s basketball or beer, you want to do something to demonstrate you love that thing,” he says. “It probably also doesn’t hurt that hops are in the same family as cannabis.”
Winslow has a point, and tempting as both IPAs and cannabis might be when roaming the hot streets of Los Angeles, I’m still in search of crisp, cold refreshment. I head across the street from Beach and Brew to Firestone Walker’s Venice taproom and ask if they’ve got anything good for a hot day.
“We’ve got a pilsner,” the beertender tells me with all the excitement of a lunch-shift stripper. “But if you wanna try something really cool we’ve got this new, experimental IPA…..”
It wasn’t invented in India.
While IPA stands for India Pale Ale, India was not the country that created it. However, it has a lot to do with it. During their efforts to colonize India, the British made several failed attempts to send beer to their troops overseas. Extreme temperatures and lack of refrigeration caused spoilage every time. According to legend, it was George Hodgson of East London’s Bow Brewery who eventually created the first IPA. It was bitter and highly alcoholic, but it could make the long ocean trip.
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