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:
Widmer Brothers Brewing
Alcohol by volume: 7%
International Bitterness Units: 85
It's hard to get a beer drinker unfamiliar with IPA to embrace your year-round version of it when that IPA keeps changing.
Widmer Brothers, the branch of the Craft Brew Alliance that prides itself on its credibility among even the most discerning craft beer enthusiasts, used to call its ever-changing Rotator IPA series its "year-round IPA." While it's true the series kept a Widmer IPA on tap all year, it would introduce a new version every three months or so. Beer geeks love that variety, but newcomers and even hardened craft beer veterans tend to like a more standard style.
Upheaval fits that bill. We got a sample of this in a box filled with hops, and the hop aroma is the first thing that hits when you go for a sip. Alchemy, Simcoe, Willamette, Chinook, Brewer's Gold and Nelson Savin hops are poured in at two pounds per barrel and clock you right in the nose with a citrusy, grassy scent that follows through in the flavor. Instead of being tongue-scraping bitter, though, the hops are balanced out by an unfiltered, wheaty character that makes this beer more like a strongly hopped Hefeweizen.
With witbier fast becoming the gateway beer of choice for those transitioning to craft styles and IPA established as small brewing's promised land, it's a bit of creative genius to combine the two into one refreshing beer.
Samuel Adams Rebel IPA
Alcohol by volume: 6.5%
International Bitterness Units: 45
Jim Koch should buy Lagunitas' Tony Magee a car for what the Petaluma, Calif.-based brewer did for Rebel IPA.
When Samuel Adams announced Rebel IPA last year, it seemed to be using all the right tools in all the wrong ways. It billed Rebel as a "West Coast IPA" and used Cascade, Simcoe, Chinook, Centennial and Amarillo hops, but couldn't help itself from balancing it so much with malt that the IBUs clocked in below the IPA that West Coast BridgePort is trying to replace.
It gave the beer a nice, edgy spray-can tap, but didn't follow up with anything like spray-can style tallboys. It looked like a nice effort but, ultimately, a pale version of the style. Then Magee went on Twitter and blasted Koch and Boston Beer for targeting the IPA taps that his flagship Lagunitas IPA and others occupy. Keep in mind that the entire point of the list you're reading is that a whole lot of brewers are doing the same thing Koch and Samuel Adams just did.
Well, that cinched it. Instead of letting Rebel go off and do what Samuel Adams IPAs tend to -- putter along at a respectable pace until they're replaced -- Magee put Rebel IPA right in the middle of the craft beer discussion. If taprooms weren't going to put Rebel on before, they might do it just to spite one of the loudest, most abrasive voices in the industry.
That's how a "West Coast IPA" that tastes nothing like a modern West Coast IPA thrives as the flagship hoppy offering for the biggest brewer in craft beer. Instead of being another middling East Coast offering, it just had an angry West Coast IPA brewer legitimize its existence. Good work, Tony.
Go To IPA
Alcohol by volume: 4.5%
International Bitterness Units: 65
Meanwhile, when you're an actual West Coast IPA brewer, you don't need to go whipping up a year-round IPA out of thin air. Sometimes, that session IPA you already have kicking around the brewery will do just fine.
Stone introduced this pleasant little number in early March and, unlike its heftier Ruination or Enjoy By IPAs, made this beer with the express purpose of being somewhat less than imperial. See that ABV? That's a light lager number that in no way prepares you for how absolutely floral and hoppy this beer is. Founder Greg Koch and company like to keep their hop mix under wraps, but they wrung every drop of resinous goodness out of those little buds by dumping a whole lot of them into the final phase of the brewing process.
There's a whole lot of hop bitterness to this beer for a recipe so light on the alcohol content, but that's exactly how a good brewer plays this game. If you can offer a new drinker a light lager and something infinitely more flavorful and tell them that there's the exact same amount of alcohol in each, you're going to get a few converts.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
Alcohol by volume: 6.5%
International Bitterness Units: 60
Dogfish Head already has two mighty serviceable year-round IPAs in its 60 Minute IPA and 90 Minute imperial. You could probably count the brewery's Burton Baton English Ale/IPA hybrid if you wanted to be pedantic about it.
So why add another? Because the aforementioned 60 Minute and 90 Minute are just big mouthfuls of bitter, grassy hops that are nobody's idea of a gateway beer. Want some training wheels? Try the Namaste witbier or Indian Brown Ale. Dogfish Head IPAs tend to be for beer's advanced class.
But they don't have to be. Founder Sam Calagione discovered that if you cut the 60 Minute with a little bit of Syrah grape must, it takes on a fruity flavor that's almost winelike, but with the same strong hop backbone. It could be construed as a blend designed to lure wine drinkers to beer, but the flavor seems to push the palate in the opposite direction: It makes wine more palatable to the beer drinker.
Dogfish Head is going year-round with this and fiddling with the blend every three months or so. The same basic premise is in place, but like various wine vintages, it will never taste exactly the same.
Alcohol by volume: 6.4%
International Bitterness Units: 60
Like Stone, Deschutes has plenty of year-round IPAs to chose from. Also like Stone, however, Deschutes' IPAs tend to be way more bitter than a moderate palate can handle.
Its Inversion IPA is a relatively benign 6.8% ABV, but clocks in at 80 IBUs of bitterness. That's fine for the hometown crowds in the Pacific Northwest, but does you no favors when you're trying to woo Yuengling drinkers in Philly. Its Chainbreaker White IPA is a relatively mild 5.6% ABV and 55 IBUs, but its Belgian yeasts and Cascade and Citra hops make it taste more like a fruity wheat beer than an IPA. Its Armory XPA experimental pale ale has IPA chops with 5.9% ABV, 55 IBUs and lots of Nugget, Northern Brewer, Cascade, Centennial and Citra hops, but it's available only in 22-ounce bombers and primarily along the West Coast.
Fresh Squeezed is the middle ground that fans have been waiting for. Bittered with fruity Citra, Mosaic and Nugget hops and available in six-packs and on draft, this pleasant, palatable IPA should be a summer favorite but has a flavor profile pleasant enough to weather even the worst months.
All Day IPA
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Alcohol by volume: 4.7%
International Bitterness Units: 42
Sure, Founders' Centennial IPA is hoppier at 65 IBUs, but it's also hefty at 7.2% ABV. It's not the type of beer you'd put in a 15-pack of cans for the summer.
All Day IPA has no trouble being that beer. From a brewery known for big beers such as its Breakfast Stout and Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, All Day IPA had its issues. A hop shortage in 2012 held it to a limited run, with Founders unable to release it to all markets until February 2013. Once it arrived, however, its easy drinking nature and light blend of Simcoe and Amarillo hops made it Founders' most popular beer.
It went year-round in July, became the first Founders beer sold in cans and, this year, becomes the first craft beer released in a 15-pack when that package debuts this spring. That last bit places it firmly in macro beer territory and chases summer packs of light lager with something packing a whole lot more aroma and flavor. It's about as macro as a craft IPA has ever been and makes a strong argument for IPA as the next dominant U.S. beer style. It all starts just one mellow sip at a time.
Long Trail Brewing
Bridgewater Corners, Vt.
Alcohol by volume: 7.6%
International Bitterness Units: 80
Long Trail has been around since 1989 and helped put Vermont on the map as a brewing state. Since then it's seen big competitors such as Catamount and Magic Hat bought out, seen newcomers such as Alchemist and Hill Farmstead steal the spotlight and seen its own brewery and others around it relegated to old news.
It's a beer many Northeast beer lovers remembered fondly, but didn't always remember when they had one last.
That didn't sit well with Long Trail, which ended up buying out fellow Vermont brewer Otter Creek in 2011 after that neglected longtimer opted to sell. Long Trail still had a vibrant brewery and a brewpub that packed to the catwalks on leaf-peeping weekends. It just didn't have an updated lineup.
Consider Limbo that much-needed breath of fresh air. Introduced last year and packed with Bravo, Chinook, Galaxy, Mosaic hops, Limbo is a spinoff of the brewery's Vermont-only Farmhouse Ales series and its brewery-only Brown Bag series of experimental beers. With the brewery's malty, 50 IBU traditional English IPA dating back to 2005 and tasting nothing like a West Coast IPA even then, it decided to introduce Limbo as a nod to what was quickly becoming the dominant version of the style.
Higher in alcohol but far higher in bitterness, Limbo did the job it had to do: It made Long Trail IPAs relevant again in a state where they had to compete with Heady Topper. That gave Vermonters and visitors a choice: Either stand on line for your two cases and hope they don't run out, or settle in with some readily available and mighty fine Limbo and be just as contented. All but the most insufferable of beer snobs should have no problem with the latter, though this beer is no one's consolation prize.
Last Chance IPA
Alcohol by volume: 5.9%
International Bitterness Units: 62
The East Coast is soaked in aging, malty, "balanced" English-style IPAs that seem underpowered compared with their West Coast counterparts, but that breweries can't bear to part with because East Coast drinkers still drink them.
There should be two options for those beers: Either recast them as "Traditional," "English" or "East Coast" IPA, or kill them to eliminate confusion.
Weyerbacher is one of those rare, brave breweries to chose the latter. The brewery created its first IPA, Hop Infusion, back in 1998 and used what was on hand at the time: Cascade, Pilgrim, Centennial, Liberty, Saaz, Fuggle and E. Kent Golding hops. What nobody told it was that if it eliminated about five of those hops and went heavy on the Cascade and Pilgrim, it would have been ahead of the curve.
But keep in mind that this is 1998 in Easton, Pa., and the balanced, Harpoon-style IPA reigned. In fact, that sweet and soapy IPA worked out so well while Weyerbacher's other brands did the heavy lifting that the brewery didn't get around to tinkering with it until 2012. By that time, the brewery had decided to create a new IPA and donate a portion of the proceeds to local animal rescue groups. That Last Chance in the name is really some poor animal's last chance at finding a home.
Fortunately for the abandoned animals of Eastern Pennsylvania, Weyerbacher learned its way around Simcoe and Columbus hops, threw them in with their Cascades and Centennials and made a beer that could certainly qualify as a West Coast IPA.
Instead of keeping old Hop Infusion around, however, Weyerbacher decided to retire it and keep Last Chance as its IPA of choice. The animals are being rescued, but there's no hope for some old beers that stubbornly refuse to learn new tricks.
Flying Dog Brewing
Alcohol by volume: 4.7%
International Bitterness Units: 50
This brewery makes it incredibly difficult to focus on the beer.
One of its founders, George Stranahan, is an astrophysicist, photographer, rancher, writer, philanthropist and educator who has also founded three schools and scaled K2. Co-founder Richard McIntyre runs the Flying Dog Ranch conference center and retreat in Carbondale, Colo. Their neighbor, the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, not only wrote an essay about their beer when the brewery was still in Colorado, but introduced them to artist Ralph Steadman -- who designed the covers for Thompson books including Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Steadman has illustrated each of Flying Dog's labels since.
The brewery's globetrotting CEO, Jim Caruso, still keeps in contact with Thompson's widow Anita and occasionally uses hops from Thompson's Colorado ranch in the brewery's beers. When you do finally get around to those beers, however, they're nothing shy of astonishing. We had the great fortune of trying the brewery's limited release Mint Chocolate Stout in Delaware at the end of last year and living the dream of having a favorite ice cream flavor seamlessly transitioned to beer form. Raging Bitch Belgian IPA, Snake Dog IPA and Double Dog Imperial IPA have all been Mid-Atlantic favorites hopped like Colorado IPA, but at 7% to 11.6% ABV, they're all incredibly potent beers.
Easy IPA takes it down a notch by lowering the alcohol content considerably but loading it with citrusy hops that still give it a pungent aroma and plenty of bitterness. This isn't a brewery known for holding back or embracing convention, and creating a low-alcohol IPA with this much intensity certainly continues that streak. Now if only Thompson had left them some high-powered blunderbuss capable of preventing Anheuser-Busch InBev from blatantly ripping off Steadman's label art.
Rough Draft Brewing
Alcohol by volume: 4.8%
International Bitterness Units: 43
It's one thing to update your IPA because the old version is out of fashion. Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine, just released its Monkey Fist IPA as a West Coast-style update to its original-recipe IPA -- which it now refers to as Fuggles IPA to show off its British roots. Summit Brewing in St. Paul, Minn., also released its Saga IPA as a West Coast counterpart to its longstanding original IPA -- which now goes by the name True Brit in deference to the milder British style.
It's completely another thing to offer a milder IPA because your current offerings are a bit too intense. That's the problem Rough Draft was facing after finding great success with its Eraser IPA (80 IBU) and Hop Therapy Double IPA (94 IBU). While San Diego tends to reward brewers who make their drinkers feel as if they've been gagged with a bale of hops, some brewers realize that it's hard to woo converts in this craft beer town if you don't start them off slowly. They also know that even the most hardened hopheads occasionally like a beer they can drink more than one of without getting blitzed.
Last year, Rough Draft drifted into session IPA territory with Weekday and never went back. The year-round offering is packed with citrusy Simcoe and Citra hops and brings in all of the hop flavor without the imperial alcohol content. It's a lot easier to dial back your beer when it doesn't lose any of its character as a result, but it's still interesting to see upstart brewers hitting IPA alcohol content that their predecessors found decades ago, while those established brewers seek bolder hop profile and flavor that seems to come so easy to the new breweries. If those sides can meet in the middle like Rough Draft has, we'll eagerly await the wall-to-wall IPA future.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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