The Session #77: IPA: What’s the Big Deal?

The SessionWith everything else that’s been going on these past few weeks I forgot to post about this month’s Session, which is taking place today! It’s sure to be a hot topic, too, with Justin Mann over at Justin’s Brew Review posing the question: IPA: What’s the big deal?

For quite some time now, I’ve been wondering what makes the India Pale Ale (IPA) style of beer so popular. Don’t get me wrong–I thoroughly enjoy it and gladly participate in #IPADay. I’m just wondering, why all the hype? What is it about an IPA that makes craft beer enthusiasts (CBE) go wild? Is it because CBEs want to differentiate craft beer from crapbeer? I don’t care if a watered-down pilsener is labeled as “triple-hops brewed“; it wouldn’t satisfy someone looking for an IPA.

At the same time, not all CBEs prescribe to the IPA way. The author (a beer writer!) of a recent article proclaims that “hoppy beer is awful” and that it is allegedly “alienating people who don’t like bitter brews”. I happen to like IPAs and DIPAs, so I’m not going to preach about only non-hopped craft beer, as the author suggests, just to turn people away from overcommercialized yellow-colored water. Besides, maybe the bitterness and hoppiness of an IPA is exactly what some beer drinkers that have yet to be introduced to the ways of craft might want.

Despite the fact that IPA is the number one selling craft beer style right now, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question—or even just one answer. But I’ve been ruminating on this question for a little while now and, like Stan, I’ll point to the hops angle.

Obvious, right? Of course IPAs are all about hops, and I’d bet most beer geeks would point to the hops as the answer (or the problem). I don’t know though; hops have been in beer for hundreds of years and IPAs have been around (at least in the Old World) for quite awhile as well. So what’s different now? What’s making the “craft beer enthusiasts” go wild to have pushed IPA to the #1 spot?

It’s the hops—only, it’s not the bitterness, but the hoppiness.

Think about it. I remember early craft IPAs in the U.S. being bitter, and that was the hallmark of the IPA—bitterness. And though there are still plenty of IPAs today that still emphasize this bitterness, over the past few years there has been a stronger trend of drawing out the character of the hops: the hoppiness as opposed to bitterness. When I talk about a beer being “hoppy” I am referring to those floral, fruity, juicy, spicy, amazingly flavorful qualities that brewers are able to coax out of these flowers.

Yes, a good IPA should have a good crisp snap of bitterness but more and more I’m truly impressed by this deft handling of hops.

And I think that’s a part of why IPA is such a big deal and so popular these days. Hops add a dimension to beer that is unlike any other drink out there, and the IPA brings that out unlike any other style of beer. Even the other (current) darling style of the beer geekerati, Imperial Stout, doesn’t bring this kind of character into the mix.

They have flavors that people are craving, that are unique, that go way beyond simple bittering. It’s all about the flavor, and as we as a culture continue to gravitate to more flavorful food and drink and thus more enjoyment over what we consume, it’s natural for IPAs to take the forefront.

Will IPA as a style be “on top” forever? I don’t expect so; like everything else trends in flavor and consumption fluctuate over time. But for now—it’s fun while it lasts.