It is that time of the month. The Session and this time the question is posed by Justin's Brew Review... presumably by Justin:
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?
Do you see the problem? It's right there: "...what makes the India Pale Ale (IPA) style of beer so popular." See, there is no style of beer that is IPA. You don't agree? Let's examine the evidence and the implications.
=> Justin admits he happens "to like IPAs and DIPAs." These are either two styles or one the subset of the other. Yet we have to admit that if a DIPA is a subset of IPAs then IPAs must be a subset of PAs. So, at best, the question is "what makes the India Pale Ale (IPA) styles of beer so popular?"
=> The problem is it does not stop there. There are not only IPAs and DIPAs but also BIPAs and WIPAs. There are also, at a minimum American, Belgian and British IPAs. Not all of these are well known let alone popular. I have a WIPA in the stash but I have never had one. Not sure I like it yet. So is the question not really "what makes the India Pale Ale (IPA) styles of beer so prevalent?"
=> That's a good restatement. Why are so many styles so prevalent. Are they historic? No, they are new. What is new that drives the proliferation of IPA related beers? In part, the proliferation of brewers. With an oddly aggressive expansion in the number of breweries comes the need to differentiate. So you need the new. Hence: "what makes the India Pale Ale (IPA) styles of beer so prevalent at this point in time?"
=> Which leads to the realization that brewers are not necessarily risk takers. So, if you recognize the need to differentiate you also need to appreciate the benefits of familiarity. So, you plagiarize... or is it recycle and reuse? Whatever it is, by co-opting a familiar term for that new thing. Leaving us with: ""what makes the use of the term India Pale Ale (IPA) for so many styles of beer so prevalent at this point in time?"
Great question. And the obvious answer is branding. You take a familiar thing with a good hook and milk it for all it is worth. Jaded? No, the bastardization of adjectives by brewers is likely as old as the use of yeast to ferment malty goodness. Is there a problem with that? Not really. It's a nice honest admission, the sort of one that you see on the accused face on a slow day in a sleepy courtroom when you hear them say that one word "guilty". We admit the truth with relief.
Having offered such purgation, I am going to point out one more thing that Jeff noted today: "IPAs have evolved in increments, from screamingly bitter, mildly grapefruity versions of the 90s to the increasingly aromatic, dank, dry-hopped incarnations in the mid aughts to now... See? IPAs as IPAs in themselves have experienced a certain flavour mobility, too. It's not just what's on the label but what's in the glass. And what is it in the glass that makes it an IPA? Hops. Whether bitter, grapefruity, aromatic or dank it's about the hops. Which is great. If you like that sort of thing.
Me, I am drinking a brown ale at the moment. Sweet grainy brown. Last beer I had was a Belgian yeasty dubbel and a sludgy Fantome saison before that. I don't care all that much for hops as a prime ingredient for a couple of reasons. Don't get me wrong. I have had my share. But when I like them it is when the beer comes together and nods to all four directions of the beery compass: water, yeast, malt and hops. Not always in equal measure but at lease in some sense of order. Which means I like good value old school American IPAs like Stone Arrogant Bastard, Oskar Blues Dales Pale Ale and Smuttynose Big A. I miss Sgt. Major's IPA. I drink more Headstock than any other beer. The newer IPAs which offer new and improved flavour like a laundry soap promised cleaner short collars? Not so sure. Seems a lot like a chase for the next thing. A neediness. But maybe that need is part of what IPA means now. It is code. The thing you have not had that you just might like. Or code for IPA with other flavours added. Nothing wrong with that. Except if it stops you from trying something that lacks those three little letters.
Conclusion? Don't get sucked in by branding. Be an omni-boire... but also know what you like. And that often is IPA. Read Nate Dawg if you have any doubt what it means to like IPA. He knows what the IPA deal is.