It’s pretty much the same every single time a new toy arrives in our household. My two young boys desire it like nothing they’ve ever desired! They have to fight over it. It has to come to the dinner table with them. It has to come to the bathroom with them. It has to come under the covers with them at bed time.
If the toy sticks around, they’ll still love it, but a little less so. I’ll find it behind the couch. They’ll sit with a while but then set up a new battleground over some other toy or game or show on television. Brothers. What are you going to do.
We beer drinkers behave a little like my two toddler sons, though. Our toys are different, and come in a different aisle, with names like IPA instead of iPad. But that cycle of the new and exciting, slowly morphing into the old standby and the little less titilating? Yeah, we do that with our beer.
Let’s consider the story of the India Pale Ale.
In the late nineties, America saw its first craft beer explosion, and one of the breweries at the heart of that new movement in beer was Stone Brewing. From their own text, their IPA “explodes with citrusy, piney hop flavors and aromas” and that was exciting enough to launch a craft beer empire. Put up against the lagers that dominated the beer scene back then, it was a revelation.
It was also fairly alone. It was a new toy, yes, but it was like bringing home that first Commodore 64 — it changed everything. Along with IPAs from Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, and Bell’s, drinkers flocked to the style. The revolution was fueled by hops.
It’s a little different today. Now the craft beer scene looks like the toy room after a play date: every brewery’s got one or ten strewn about, and there are now 5,000 breweries so that’s a ton of IPAs.
Those old flagship IPAs? They don’t quite have busted wheels and missing parts, but the enthusiasm is not quite the same as it used to be.”
Those old flagship IPAs? They don’t quite have busted wheels and missing parts, but the enthusiasm is not quite the same as it used to be. Over the last three years, you can see the effect if you group the most established IPAs in beer together and look at their ratings over time.
Which IPAs are the flagships of the style? Let’s go with a few you might recognize:
Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA
Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
Bell’s Two Hearted IPA
Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA
Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA
Green Flash West Coast IPA
Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA
Elysian Space Dust IPA
Deschutes Freshly Squeezed IPA
Not all of these IPAs have been around since the first craft beer movement, but they’ve all been around for a while. For the most part, they’re available around the country, too. If you haven’t had these yet, try them! But they’re not necessarily ‘what’s new.’
And if you look at their 10-day rolling scores (grouped by the month) on untappd, a beer social media site that allows people to rate a beer and let their friends now they’re drinking it, you can see that the ratings have gone down even over the last three years.
The first time I had a Green Flash West Coast IPA, I gave it that look that Samuel Jackson’s character Jules Winfield gives Quentin Tarantino's Jimmie when Jimmie hands him that cup of good coffee in Pulp Fiction. I’m no four-year old, but that arched eyebrow and second look at the glass is basically my high-pitched squeal of delight at a new lego set.
In my baseball chats, I recommended the beer to everyone that year. I was breathless in my excitement. Now, when I have a West Coast IPA, I reminisce on how much I used to like it, and feel it's a bit too malty and a bit too chewy for my tastes today. And then I order something different for my next beer.
I can’t help it, I’m searching for that new taste, that new thing that will arch my eyebrow again. And I’m not alone, it looks like. The flagships have lost their luster in the beer rating community.
But here’s something that might surprise you about IPA scores. At the same time that the flagships are suffering at the hands of raters, the style as a whole is scoring better than it ever has. Look at the same graph as above, but this time let's add the rolling scores for all IPAs over time. The style is getting friendlier ratings every month.
How does this square with the IPA as the Old Toy? Why is this established and mature style doing better than ever even as the original gangsters of the style fade in the ratings?
The answer still lies in the New Toy Effect.
My older kid loves legos, and even if he’s not as into the old legos that he’s set aside, every new lego affirms his love for legos even more. If he could rate them, he’d probably be inflating the scores on his lego check-in app. And they’d still be legos, but they’re *new* legos each time.
We call IPAs one style, but it’s no monolith.
There are many different ways to make an IPA, and you can still get that new toy feeling by trying a new IPA, particularly one with a new approach. Take a look at what Trillium and Tree House are doing. Their brand of North East IPA — which combines a less bitter approach with tropical fruit and grassy flavors — is tearing up the leaderboards. Tree House has five of the top ten IPAs on RateBeer, and Trillium and Tree House combined have 18 of the top 100 IPAs in America on that website.
They’re doing something new! And it’s exciting for beer fans.
Maybe it’s a little exhausting. Maybe you’re the type that loves the old standards and thinks we should value the tried and true over the next big thing. That's fine, of course.
There’s a crowd on the beer shelves now, more and more beers trying to fit in the same space and get your attention as the next new thing.”
It’s certainly true that this sort of thing has meaning to the beer industry. There’s a crowd on the beer shelves now, more and more beers trying to fit in the same space and get your attention as the next new thing. It may be too much at some point, too much for the beer store to handle, at least. That might be the true bubble effect, that smaller breweries have trouble edging out a corner of the beer store.
The good news is that more and more of the share of craft beer is being sold at your local brewery and brewpub. On-premise and on-tap sales make up as much as 30% of craft beer sales, and they don’t have the same problems as the beer store. Go to your local brewery, and they’ll have a new IPA with all the tropical fruit goodness that people are into now, and they’ll satisfy that novel itch without having the problem of the crowd.
But, if we do like the beer store experience as much as your local brewery, we should probably remember the old toy behind the couch. Let's be like my wife when she hides old toys and breaks them out again like they’re new for the kids! Make the old new again.
Get a sixer of your first favorite IPA this weekend. It’ll be interesting again, I promise! It’ll be like it’s… new.