Tracking the Evolution of American IPA

united staes of hops

It says a lot about our country’s love for all things hop, considering how easy it is for us to talk about it.

(Flips through dozens of posts on this blog)

A week ago, the folks at Willamette Week did a Portland, Oregon-based IPA taste test to determine the best in Beervana, USA. The winners? Beers “influenced by Heady Topper, Julius and Sculpin, beers that present hops as a reward rather than a challenge.”

That got me thinking.

Then Jeff Alworth chimed in, sharing some excellent insight and expertise as to why the best IPAs in Portland are more influenced by aroma and taste than bitterness.

Which got me thinking some more.

In our natural evolution as a beer drinking country, it seems our manifest destiny to have arrived at this place, where the hop is king and we are continuously searching for more ways to celebrate our love of lupulin, albeit in a different way than we did five, 10 and especially 20 years ago.

So why have our collective tastes shifted from biting bitterness to flavorful concoctions? Let’s think about this together.

In regard to the shift in our preference, let’s start with some chronological insight.

Geography!

Most beer enthusiasts know the IPA took off on the West Coast, launched into orbit by California breweries like Russian River. But its spread, at least in some ways, can be tracked.

In 2013, I wrote a series of posts using Google Trends to track the growth of search terms related to beer with hope of better analyzing American interest in the product and industry. I noted at the time that searches for “craft beer” took off in the Northeast, which was paired with additional curiosity about “IPA”:

The IPA – arguably the flagship style of the craft beer movement – has seen monumental growth in interest in recent years. From the GIF below, you can see how searches for “IPA” started where you would expect on the West Coast, but has taken over the country. Google searches categorized below are for the first six months of each year and bluer means more searches:

test ipa on Make A Gif

Looking back just 8 years in our U.S. drinking culture, the idea of “bitter” as “extreme” was still a way for brewers to make their mark and flex their creative muscles to show drinkers flavors went beyond mass market lagers they were used to. At the time, bitterness was a key differentiator for IPAs.

But as the idea of craft beer and new styles took hold, East Coast brewers had been offering a balance to the trend with their own take. Beers like Harpoon IPA and Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute set the stage as IPAs for a demographic easing its way into craft beer – let alone IPAs. They had to present flavors in a more nuanced way for a geographic location more interested in lagers then some heavily flavored craft beer styles.

Perhaps a key is to look at things in terms of waves:

  • First wave: West Coast with unique hops and bitterness
  • Second wave: Northeast to introduce balance of new flavors to drinkers
  • Third wave: Midwest and beyond

That third portion is important to consider. While New England may be making many of today’s top IPAs, the chronology of brewery openings also matters. In 2014, I wrote this:

Knowing that IPA sales have rapidly increased over the years, it makes sense that as new breweries come online and new beers are created, regional interest in IPA and the reliance on making a standout IPA also go up. Hence the latest and greatest from the IPA “newbies” of the East Coast and Midwest.

With some simplistic analysis, I found that the Midwest was kind of kicking ass when it came to hop-forward beers. It makes sense because highly rated IPAs were being made by breweries relatively “new” in their existence. At that point, tastes and preferences were kicking in during the late 2000s, new processes and ingredients were available and breweries not only needed an IPA for drinkers, but needed an IPA that would stand out from the rest, moving beyond bitterness. As pointed out by the original Willamette Week piece, “newness” of breweries may correlate with the way IPAs are created, too.

Tastes were changing, but technology was also helping to shift beer flavors to biological preferences.

Science!

Jeff raises a great point regarding the rise of American hops:

It didn’t take too long before Americans started to find their hop tooth, and by the 2000s we were getting more and more attached to these tropical, citrusy, piney, dank flavors.

In fact, this type of profile fits perfectly into what our genetics are structured to look for. When it came to early IPAs, bitterness was more of a placeholder than anything else due to the time in which they began gaining traction among American drinkers. The truth is, not only do we want sweetness on a base level, but beer drinkers are increasingly pushed toward bigger flavors. Even lagers, created for nuance, get the hop treatment to appease American audience.

All the while, things are changing from an agricultural and technological level.

A lab at Sierra Nevada's Mills River, NC facility shows emphasis on greater quality control for ingredients - including hops.

A lab at Sierra Nevada’s Mills River, NC facility shows emphasis on greater quality control for ingredients – including hops.

Hop varieties – both what is cultivated and what was offered in terms of flavor – were not just changing, but growing at a rapid pace. Literally. Even last year, I pointed out how important new hop varieties were to both drinkers and successful product launches. What was commonplace in breweries changed, too. Inventions like the Hop Gun and Hop Rocket have become standard practice for squeezing out as much flavor from ever more popular aroma hops.

This again gets to Jeff’s point – a shift toward particular flavors and aromas is a move of Americans and American breweries across the country. It may have been regional in its origination – adaption most certainly is a slow crawl – but what we enjoy now in terms of what might be the “best” beer, is simply accepted all over. You see this across “best beer” lists that are littered with IPAs and pale ales that focus on showcase hops.

(See here and here and here and here … and you get the idea.)

Even more so, look to this piece from All About Beer from summer 2015. In it, the discussion is about legacy breweries changing their IPA recipes to better reflect modern tastes. New brewers set the tone, older breweries had to catch up and adapt, which now means this profile of heavy aroma/flavor and light bitterness can be seen as the norm. Just look at session IPAs.

Results!

Which circles back to the original issue being raised in terms of bitterness of old IPAs vs. flavors of new IPAs. In the Great Hop War, did bitterness really lose? Perhaps it just slowly faded away as the beer industry caught up to what we were looking for all along. There’s a reason a “Tart n’ Juicy” IPA exists, after all.

Two decades ago, bitterness, by virtue of raw materials available, and it’s acceptance as “extreme” may have reigned supreme, but as education increased and expectations shifted, a smarter consumer can help drive the market in which they reside. The change in tastes isn’t a regional thing. It’s a human thing.

What we’re able to find now in IPAs and pale ales isn’t the result of a battle won or lost, it’s the outcome of evolution of our taste buds and how we want to treat them.

Note: Per usual, references in my posts are hyperlinked. I’ve called back to posts over the last three years which have both research and citations and encourage poking around with those if you want to learn more.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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3 thoughts on “Tracking the Evolution of American IPA

  1. Pingback: The Best Breweries and Beer of 2015 are also the Best of 2016 (So Far) | This Is Why I'm Drunk

  2. Pingback: Zymurgy’s “Best Beers” List Loves Hops, Clings to Heritage Brands | This Is Why I'm Drunk

  3. Pingback: The Perfect Tap List as Determined by Beer Nerds | This Is Why I'm Drunk

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