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Drink that IPA now (please)

Six of the top eight new “craft beer” brands in the United States in 2010 were IPAs of some sort (sometimes “imperial” or “double,” sorry Mr. B), according to Symphony IRI, which tracks beer sales in various channels.

Curiously, although “American-Style India Pale” annually draws more entries than any other category at the Great American Beer Festival, before 2010 no single brand could be found at Walmarts across the country. Now there are three — Sierra Nevada Torpedo, New Belgium Ranger IPA and Samuel Adams Latitude 48. Sierra Nevada introduced Torpedo in 2009, the other two were new in 2010 (Latitude for just the last four months and still it was the second best selling new “craft beer,” behind Ranger.)

What does this mean? That IPA is going mainstream, going viral, about to trend on Twitter? Something like that. Plus thousands more people will get the story behind India Pale Ale wrong. (Save yourself the pain — just tell them to go buy Amber, Black & Gold and/or Hops and Glory.)

One bit of explanation. Symphony IRI tracks packaged goods through a variety of channels, such as supermarkets, convenience stores and big box stores. The places lots of people buy lots of stuff. IRI doesn’t get data from every single liquor store, including perhaps the one where you buy special beers. They don’t track sales in bars or brewpubs. Places where IPA was already on the radar.

However, when the Brewers Association finishes collecting information from its members and announces “craft beer” sales totals for 2010 they’ll likely reflect what Dan Wandel of IRI told BA members in a conference call on Thursday. He reported that dollars sales of what IRI calls craft beer (pretty much the same definition as the BA) increased 14 percent and case sales 12 percent.

Supermarket sales of Torpedo soared 154 percent in 2010. IRI now lists it as the 11th best selling craft brand (its definition, so no Blue Moon White, which would be No. 1). However that’s classifying seasonals and variety packages as brands. The top-selling six actual beers are Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, New Belgium Fat Tire, Shiner Bock, Widmer Hefeweizen and Torpedo.

Two more data points: IRI began tracking 53 additional IPA brands in 2010 and IPA’s share of what constitutes the IRI craft universe grew from 9 percent to 11 percent.

Many of these new drinkers may well tweet “I’m drinking such and such IPA at such and such pub” without even knowing that’s short of India Pale Ale (see above). That might be just as well, because they start hearing about beers brewed for a long journey as sea, built to last, full of hops that act as preservatives and they’re going to be tempted to stick a few in their cellar to see how they age.

An interesting idea, but not necessarily a good one for American IPAs. To quote from the Brewers Association style guidelines, “The style is further characterized by fruity, floral and citrus-like American-variety hop character.” And those American hop aromas — love ’em or hate ’em — are highly volatile. Much more so than the hops that would have flavored nineteenth century India Pale Ales.

After a couple of months many of those floral, citrusy, catty aromas that identify an American IPA will fade from even the most carefully bottled and handled beers. Subject them to a little bit of heat or agitation in transit — you know, like on a moving boat — and they’ll be plain old pale ales even sooner.

The best time to drink an American IPA and have it taste like the brewer intended was 600 words ago, when you read the headline.

14 Responses to Drink that IPA now (please)

  1. The Beer Nut February 18, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    I’d just like to point out as an aside that even after travelling 6,000 miles, Torpedo still tastes gorgeous.

  2. Alan February 18, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Well, we are not slaves to the brewer – are we. I take your point but I also like the tracking of decay as well. Other flavours interject, come into being, argue with each other as time passes. By all means, do drink them early. But drink them late as well to teach yourself about time.

  3. Generik February 18, 2011 at 11:29 am #

    I still say if someone wants to take an American IPA and cellar it, go for it. So what if it doesn’t taste exactly like the brewer intended? I’ve got a 3 year old bottle of Mendocino’s winter seasonal, an Imperial IPA. The last bottle I had was last winter and the beer was fantastic and certainly had a different quality than fresh. I’ve also got bottles of each vintage so far of Bell’s Hopslam. I’m sure that will peeve plenty of beer geeks but I don’t care. It’s fun to find out what some of these beers age in to after you’ve sampled them fresh. The beer drinking experience is subjective and if someone wants an experience that is at odds with what the brewer intended, so be it.

  4. Jeff Alworth February 18, 2011 at 11:40 am #

    Stan, great information–thanks!

  5. Stan Hieronymus February 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    I’d just like to point out as an aside that even after travelling 6,000 miles, Torpedo still tastes gorgeous.

    Not to belabor the point of last week, but Torpedo is what happens when brewers are passionate about delivering, as well as initially creating, great beer. Sierra Nevada is the brewery that went to the trouble to track the effects of agitation.

  6. Alan February 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    With respect, I buy competent, interested, capable, or masterful, sure, but “passionate”? There is an end to the utility of the word.

  7. Stan Hieronymus February 18, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Alan and Generik – Next time I won’t say please ;>)

    Seriously, you obviously are free to experiment however you want. And when you move into the “imperial” range you are often talking about borderline barley wines anyway.

  8. Alan February 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    What really bugs me is the inability to truly place the old next to the new. Even trying vintages in a horizontal is so prone to variables it makes quantum physics pop up in the mind, the end of what may be known. It is an excellent lesson but as it is about mortality not necessarily the best one for the first warmish Friday afternoon of the year.

  9. Stan Hieronymus February 18, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    Alan – Such tastings are supposed to be fun. I try not to dwell on mortality (or morality). I figure I’m less than 4 hours from a fresh pils, which I would probably drink even if it weren’t also warm here.

  10. jay February 18, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    Last summer, I frequently enjoyed Harpoon IPA. In cans. When I’m in a local bar with a limited selection, I’ll always default to “uh, I’ll have an IPA.”

    What I think it is about the style is just that that assertive hop presence screams in a way completely devoid of subtlety, “this isn’t your dad’s beer” (although my dad still talks about Ballantine IPA). Sure, Boston Lager is a great “gateway beer,” but with any IPA, you immediately know you’re drinking something different.

    And as the homebrewers all know, IPA is probably the most fool-proof style to make, so it’s logical that every new brew-pub and micro is going to make an IPA as one of their first beers.

  11. Alan February 18, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

    You are missing out, Stan. I recommend Grey’s Elegy but with beer names instead of that other creepy graveyard stuff.

  12. Jake February 24, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    Glad to see IPA’s finally getting some love

  13. Jorge - Brew Beer And Drink It February 25, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    IPA’s hooked me into craft beer and now brewing…

  14. Craft Beer February 16, 2012 at 9:28 pm #

    While I always try to drink IPAs as fresh as possible (normally I buy Surly Furious cans that were canned the same day I buy them), I don’t see a huge issue with those that want to age a bottle or two to see what happens. I suppose this is usually done more with DIPAs which turn to a bit of a barleywine once the hops die down. I can’t say I’ve ever had an IPA that I enjoyed once aged so I don’t bother but I do have some several year HopSlam sitting around in the cellar.

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