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The IPA Hegemony

It’s the first week of the month, meaning it’s time for July’s Session, when beer bloggers get together and talk about a common theme. This month, Justin’s Brew Review is hosting the topic “IPA: What’s the Big Deal?”

sessionFor 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 crap beer? I don’t care if a watered-down pilsener is labeled as “triple-hops brewed”; it wouldn’t satisfy someone looking for an IPA.

The IPA is our best selling beer at retail every week, with exceptions only when we have something new or when people drank everything we made the week before. I’m not going to pretend that I have the answer to why this is, though. I have ideas, but obviously speaking factually about why people like what they like is at best fraught with peril and at worst complete drivel.

This is a blog, though, so let the drivel commence.

They taste good

This is easy, right? It’s pure capitalism: IPAs are a a craft beer favorite because they’re delicious. Cream rises to the top (ironically, above cream ales*).

They can be piney and resinous or tart and full of grapefruit. Like their cousins the pale ale they pair well with pretty much everything: with pizza, falafel, sandwiches or solo, an IPA is never out of its element. I’m a firm believer that all beer is appropriate for all seasons, but chances are even if you like your stouts in winter and your wheats in summer you think an IPA is in a category that never goes out of style.

They’re “advanced”

I have a clear memory of one day early in my journey down the beer rabbit hole. I had picked up a mixed 12 pack of Saranac and opened the pale ale. “Oh!” I said. “This is too bitter for me.”

That is now filed in my memory palace alongside when I thought a school field trip would go to an actual field. You know, for collecting soil samples and stuff.

My point is that I expect few people can jump from 0 to 60 IBUs immediately. It might be a small rite of passage but it’s a rite nonetheless. It’s a consumable shibboleth, and so professing your love of them can show you’re really “one of us.”

This is more subconscious than overt, and I may have pulled it out of thin air**, because nobody has ever asked me for the secret code word before letting me into a tasting. It’s also important to recognize that the inverse isn’t true: if you don’t like IPAs (or hoppy beers generally) it doesn’t mean you don’t love “good”/”real” beer, it means you don’t like IPAs. People are allowed to have opinions, even if they aren’t in agreement with mine (for now). Some people never like hoppy beer because that’s not their thing, and that’s fine. On the whole, though, if someone tries all five of our beers and doesn’t like one of them, it’s The IPA (if they don’t like two, it’s The IPA and Frank, our pale ale).

They have lots of flavor

You might think that I covered this in “They taste good.” I did, but this is another angle.

Take a gander at ratebeer’s top 50 beers. I’ll wait. Now BeerAdvocate.

Notice anything? Like how searching for “imperial” highlights the page like a used textbook? You have to get to #12 on ratebeer’s list before something isn’t “imperial”/”strong”, and then until #29 for a second. BeerAdvocate is slightly more diverse, with a pale ale at #4 and a sour at #10, but on the whole the trend is clear: people like stronger beers better than weaker ones.

(Yes, there are other explanations, like “The people who hang out on beer rating sites like stronger beers” but I’m not trying to publish this in a peer reviewed journal.)

I’m going to say that the alcohol content is a secondary factor here because we’re not a bunch of drunks. If we were we’d buy a bottle of cheap vodka and be done with it. Instead I’d say that, on average, people prefer more flavor to less flavor. A big imperial stout will have rich coffee and dark chocolate and plums and a bit of pleasant wine characteristic, whereas a mild still has plenty to write home about, only more subdued.

This question could just as easily be “why do people order dark roast coffee?” or “why do people put sriracha or Frank’s on everything?” Because subtlety is harder to appreciate, and a mediocre base can turn into a good product with its application. That’s not to say that hoppy/high gravity beers are lazy, but “AND A BUSHEL OF HOPS!!” as your final ingredient will on the whole produce at the very least a decent beer. It’s similar to how light American lagers are technically impressive, even if you don’t like them: off flavors have nowhere to hide.


It turns out that there’s actually some scientific basis to why hops are great. Alex (of Risk fame) did all the legwork on that, though, and plans to write a post of his own. I fully support any excuse to point a finger in the air and yell, “SCIENCE!”

In the end, they taste good

Having gone on for quite a while about subconscious reasons for the love of IPAs, I think it’s important to remember where I started: they’re popular because damn, they’re tasty.

* This is not ironic
** Like all social science***

One comment on “The IPA Hegemony

  1. Bill Norton on

    What a great article, great explanation. I had a great time looking up the word “shibboleth”, very interesting. Great description of why I love IPAs.

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