PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- One of the biggest complaints about large beer brewers that helped give rise to craft beer was that they insisted upon replicating a middle-of-the-road light lager and just about nothing else.
It was what the overwhelming majority of beer drinkers drank for years, but it made small brewers broaden their horizons and try various styles and recipes. Now with craft beer thriving and growing, craft beer brewers of all sizes find themselves drifting toward yet another, milder version of a common style: the year-round India Pale Ale.
As much as they've embraced sour beers, potent Russian Imperial Stouts, lighter wheat beers and sweeter fruit beers, small brewers tend to live and die with the IPA. Symphony IRI saw a 36% spike in IPA sales during the first half of last year. As our colleague Tom Rotunno at CNBC noted in an IPA story last year, sales of IPAs jumped 39% in 2012 just before last year's leap.
The problem is that while increasingly hoppy, blisteringly bitter IPA is just fine for folks who'll wait on line for cans of Alchemist's Heady Topper in Vermont or pints of Russian River's Pliny The Younger in California, it's a bit overpowering for average beer drinkers who are starting to find IPA on tap handles at big chain bars and restaurants. As brewers are starting to discover, there's a delicate balance between the low-bitterness India Pale Ales microbrewers made in craft beer's early days and the high-octane IPA at the end of the spectrum today.While some brewers have watched the pendulum swing back to their older IPAs -- Uinta Brewing of Salt Lake City declares proudly that its low-alcohol Trader Session IPA of today was its original India Pale Ale of 21 years ago -- others have had to beef up their beers and replace flagship brands. Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada in Chico, Calif., modeled his hoppy Pale Ale after Ballantine Brewing's original IPA when he first began making his original flagship beer in the late 1970s. However, when tastes turned hoppier in the mid-2000s, Pale Ale's 37 International Bitterness Units just didn't cut it. Sierra Nevada introduced its Torpedo Extra IPA as a year-round beer in 2008 and, six years later, the 70 to 80 IBU beast is not only the brewery's new flagship, but has lent its name to Sierra's new Torpedo Room taproom in Berkeley, Calif. BridgePort Brewing of Portland, Ore., was founded 30 years ago and introduced its BridgePort IPA in the mid 1990s. At the time, its 50 IBUs and Centennial hops were considered potent for the style. Less than a decade ago, the brewery introduced its 87-IBU Hop Czar IPA that now serves as a co-flagship. Even Brooklyn Brewery's once-potent 45-IBU East India Pale Ale has been elbowed out of the spotlight recently by the more complex 53 IBU Brooklyn Blast. All of those new year-round IPAs adhere to the "West Coast IPA" convention of packing in as many hops as possible, but their 7% to 8% alcohol by volume makes them a bit more unwieldy that the original IPAs and pale ales they replace. The new batch of year-round offerings continues this theme, though some knock down the alcohol a bit while keeping the aroma and base bitterness they're hoping will get them some tap handles in places beer geeks typically wouldn't tread. They'd better hurry, though, as even Anheuser-Busch InBev is looking to stake out that IPA middle ground with its newly released, low alcohol Goose Island Endless IPA session beer. Here are just 10 examples of year-round IPAs that are trying to transform the style into U.S. drinkers' everyday beers: