IPA. These three letters capture the spirit of craft beer, with all its energy and craziness and adventurous enthusiasm. IPAs kicked off this brewing revolution we're living through together. And IPA remains craft beer's restless crucible, the beer style in which we see the most innovation. So it's strange how these three letters that stood for so much have come to mean so little.
Over the past year I have drunk many beers that were sold as IPAs. I'm sure you have, too. And in this time I've seen the term slapped onto cans containing some very different beers. In fact, these differences seem wider now than ever before.
I've had sour IPAs, fruity IPAs, bitter IPAs, and brut IPAs. I've had IPAs with ABVs ranging from somewhere north of 10% all the way down to less than 3%. I've had IPAs that were clear and IPAs that were cloudy. I've drunk New England IPAs so turbid they looked like orange juice. I've had bright red fruited IPAs, white IPAs, and black IPAs.
Bob Pease, CEO and President of the Brewers Association, agrees. "IPA is less of a single style now and more a platform for innovation," he says. His list of variants gets even wilder than mine. It includes imperial, West Coast, Belgian-style, Brett, or wild IPAs, plus spiced, herb, or vegetable IPAs.
Vegetable IPAs! How did it come to this?
Think back to the 1990s, when a new breed of hop-forward pale ales shook up the nation's drinking culture. These beers started to coalesce around the label “India Pale Ale.” At the same time, craft brewers were producing dark hoppy beers and calling them all sorts of things: New World porter, Cascadian dark ale, India black ale, American dark ale. Nothing quite seemed to stick.
Then someone somewhere dreamt up the oxymoron “black IPA.” It's not clear why this name endured above all others. Probably people felt these beers had more in common with modern IPAs than with traditional, roasty porters. Either way, its success loosed the term IPA from its moorings. The name no longer connected back to the ur-IPA, conceived in London and birthed in Burton. Instead it referred to something more nebulous, a shared hop-forward nature.
The truth is, the IPA label sells beer. That's why brewers use it so much.”
This can cause problems for people trying to pin down what beer styles actually mean. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), for example, lumps together all sorts of beers under the “Speciality IPA” category. These beers have little in common other than being hoppy and bitter. "This isn’t a distinct style, but is more appropriately thought of as a competition entry category," explains Dennis Mitchell, Communications Director at the BJCP. "This category also allows for expansion, so potential future IPA variants (St. Patrick’s Day Green IPA, Romulan Blue IPA, Zima Clear IPA, etc.) have a place to be entered without redoing the style guidelines."
You might ask: “What's the big deal? Who cares about beer style definitions? BJCP guidelines are for meganerds. No one reads that stuff, do they?” Well, they do serve a useful purpose. The Brewers Association and the BJCP write their guidelines with brewers in mind — particularly homebrewers. Style guidelines help make sense of the beery hits and misses all brewers produce. When you're learning any skill you need to measure your performance against clear targets. Jazz musicians riff and improvise all the time, but don't think for a moment they didn't start by learning their scales. You have to know the rules before you can break them.
I’m not the beer police. I'm not arguing that we should enforce rigid adherence to beer styles. That's not in anyone's interest. Beer changes and styles evolve. Plus there's fun to be had in challenging expectations. White stouts and black IPAs have their place. But style guidelines do have some relevance to everyday beer lovers, even though most of us would claim not to know or care much about them. For drinkers, beer styles exist to communicate shorthand information about a beer. They should help us choose what to order at the bar.
The truth is, the IPA label sells beer. That's why brewers use it so much. “Belgian IPA” sounds better to most modern ears than “Tripel.” “Red IPA” sounds more fun than a simple red ale. And it works because brewers use beer styles to communicate more than what’s in the glass. IPA has become a codeword for “new,” for “modern,” for "not your dad's beer.” That's why more and more beers are IPAs now. And it's also why some other term will surpass it when today's craft beer culture seems old-fashioned to our kids. Then you'll see Belgian IPAs become Tripels again and black IPAs revert back to porters.
The term IPA is a bit like “craft”—it doesn't mean much any more.
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo