.Peak IPA

Has the bitter and potent India pale ale finally reached the tipping point?

BITTER BEER FACE: We aren’t ready to start drinking Keystone Light. We’re just tired of being punched in the face with hops.

The India Pale Ale is a lot like like reality TV: its dominance within, and influence upon, the industry that birthed it is undeniable. Just as virtually every network has a take on the reality genre, it seems impossible to find a taproom or beer aisle without at least one IPA. And, just as the TV-watching public have grown tired of the litany of celebrity vanity programs, contest shows and soap operas posing as documentary, so too have many beer drinkers begun to tire of that most hopped-up of all beers.

Some might say that we have reached peak IPA.

Originally designed to survive lengthy, sweltering sea voyages, the extra potent ale has enjoyed a resurgence of late. Its rise in popularity is due to a number of factors, including lower overhead costs and a shorter brewing cycle—both of which make IPA appealing to both home-brewing hobbyists and low-budget micro-brewers looking to bring their product to the market as quickly as possible. A cheaper and easier-to-brew beer also encourages experimentation, which has led to a greater number and wider array of beers carrying the IPA label.

There are IPAs with floral notes, others have hints of citrus; some are copper colored and still others are pale blond. As the IPA grew in popularity and diversity, it inevitably became a symbol of all that was different and better about craft and micro-brew beers. Where the major American macrobrews were seen as flavorless and watered down, IPAs were said to have depth, complexity and character.

“IPAs opened consumers’ eyes to alternative beer styles,” says Tom Clark, brewmaster of Santa Clara Valley Brewing.

Once American beer drinkers began to acquire a taste for this new style of beer, more micro-brewers decided to enter the game. And when they did, they stuck with hoppy ales, which, as it turns out, were much easier to make than the pilsners and lagers produced by America’s biggest breweries.

“It seems that most American craft breweries have avoided brewing lagers because of the long lagering time in the fermentation tanks,” says Priscilla La Rocca, co-owner of the Fremont-based Das Brew. “While most ales can be finished and in a glass in as little as two weeks, some lagers require several months to reach their peak.”

The quick turnaround time for brewing IPA also lends itself to experimentation. And since producing a beer as different as possible from Budweiser, Coors and Miller was the name of the game, upping the ante on hops became standard.

BITTER BLOSSOM: The tiny, pine cone-shaped hops flower gives IPA its tart taste.

Hops, is a bitter, pine cone-shaped flower, which is added to beer in order to balance out the sweetness of the grain, as well as provide flavor, aroma and help prolong the life of a given brew. This last-property—the prolonging of the beer’s life—is what led to the name, India pale ale. During the 1800s, English brewers in search of a beer capable of withstanding the six-month ocean voyage from England to its then-colony, India, without going stale or being overrun by bacteria, hit upon the idea of crafting an ale with a heaping helping of hops.

“The over-hopping of India Pale Ales is really just an American thing of ‘bigger is better,'” says Dustin Cawthorne, manager of Jane’s Beer Store in Mountain View. “I hope that more brewers will scale back the hops and focus on extracting as much flavor from the hops a possible.”

He’s not the only one. Many craft brewers and beer snobs are turning their backs on the IPA—trading in the hop-heavy ales for the smoother, crisper finish of pilsners and lagers—both of which can be brewed to taste light and refreshing without coming out watered-down, like the American macrobrews so often derided by the microbrew set.

For example, San Francisco-based Anchor Brewing has been brewing its California Lager since 2012, and Ballast Point—long famous for their Sculpin IPA, which boasts a score of 70 IBUs, or international bittering units—also sells Longfin, a very smooth lager, which comes in at only 18 on the IBU scale.

“People want to be able to have more than one or two beers,” says Jordan Trigg, owner of Liquid Bread Gastropub in Campbell. “It is hard to drink hoppy beer all day. Also, I believe that more and more women are getting into beer and they have different palettes than men. Pilsners and lagers plus wheat beers meet their taste preferences.”

The founders of the recently opened New Bohemia Brewery in Santa Cruz are clearly ready to move beyond hop-heavy ales. NuBo boasts the only true pilsner brewing system in Northern California and they only brew a single IPA—aptly named “Another IPA.”

“There are definitely a lot more American breweries making lagers and pilsners (these days),” Cawthorne says. “The lager has been enjoyed across the world for centuries and will be for the coming future.”

Drew Ehrlich, founder and brewmaster of Strike Brewing forecasts a decrease in popularity of the IPA—if only because the people making the beers are getting bored. “Brewers, by nature, like to be creative,” Elrich says. “It can get monotonous making IPA after IPA, so its not surprising to (see brewers shifting to) make something at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

It should be noted that no one in the field sees the increased interest in craft pilsners and lagers as a death knell for the IPA. Clark, of Santa Clara Valley Brewing, which is known for its Electric Tower IPA, says he believes the uptick in lighter micro-brew is simply an indication of the exploratory spirit of beer makers and beer lovers.

“Brewers are thinking about different styles to experiment with while craft consumers are asking about beers they have tried around the world or read about online,” Clark says. “These factors come together to form a great synergy that I don’t think exists in any other industry.”

Even La Rocca—whose Das Brew specializes in German style beers, like lagers, and only reluctantly gave in to producing IPAs—doesn’t think hoppy ales will disappear. While she definitely thinks that IPAs have reached a tipping point, she also considers herself a beer nerd who keeps up with trends the general beer consumer doesn’t. And for them—the average Joe or Joanne six-pack, IPAs are here to stay.

“The IPA demand won’t die,” she says. “Breweries will continue experimenting with new hops to keep the followers intrigued.” However, La Rocca also thinks more breweries will begin exploring lagers, pilsners and other, less bitter, beers in the years to come—a relief to those who are tired of being punched in the face by hops.

Anna Bagirov contributed to this report.

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