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Session 77 – IPA: Why it’s a big deal

The SessionToday the topic for The Session is “IPA: What’s the Big Deal?” What follows is based mostly on what’s occurring in the United States, although IPA Madness doesn’t stop at the U.S. borders, which you’ll see by visiting today’s posts (look for the links at the bottom of the announcement).

Nearly eighteen years ago, beer author-brewer-consumer Randy Mosher presented a travelogue of a recent trip to the world’s largest hops growing regions to listeners at Oldenberg Beer Camp in Kentucky. At one point he tilted his head back as if he were taking a big drink, reaching his hands into the air and grabbing fistfuls of imagined hops, then bringing them back down to his mouth.

“Americans have been starved for hops so long,” he said, “that right now we’re just shoving them down our throats.”

The implication was this would pass. It has not. I’ve cited this from Hop Culture in the United States before, but 140 years later it is still relevant:

“The brewing industry is not exempt from the influence of fashion. A careful survey of the types and descriptions of beers in vogue at different times will show that fashion has had something to do with our trade,” the author wrote. He described changes in beer dating to back before hops became an essential ingredient, and considered what might be next in England. “We will not further refer to the threatened introduction of lager beer into this country, than to say fashion takes strange freaks, and it will be well for brewers to be prepared for all eventualities.”

At the beginning of 2008 pale ale was the best selling craft beer style in supermarkets, followed by amber ale, amber lager, wheat beers, and then IPA. Yes, wheat beers, then IPA.

In the four years between the end of 2007 and end of 2011 sales of IPA increased 260 percent and it became the No. 1 craft style. The next year sales increased 40 percent again. This gets harder to measure, because now we have Black IPAs, White IPAs, Belgian IPAs, Session IPAs, and Cider IPAs.

And late Thursday, Harry Schuhmacher passed long the boldest of predictions.

All this reflects still growing interest in aromas and flavors being discovered in hops — or more accurately, created during the brewing process. IPA has become a synomym for hops. When Mosher made his 1995 Hop Tour these are a few of the varieties that weren’t yet commercially available: Amarillo, Apollo, Bravo, Calypso, Citra, Galaxy, Mandarina Bavaria, Mosaic, Motueka, Nelson Sauvin, Riwaka, Saphir, and Simcoe. For starters.

More than once last week at the National Homebrewers Conference I was asked what the next hot aroma/flavor would be? My best guess is more variations on this theme. No doubt there will be new varieties released, maybe touting a little more gooseberry, a lot more blueberry, a subtle melon, more lime, even coconut. But, and I hope I am not just being pie-in-the-sky optimistic, brewers also have an opportunity to blend varieties already in hand — often rich in compounds that breeders and farmers worked to keep out of hops as recently as 40 years ago — to create something new.

As Alex Barth, president of hop merchant John I. Haas has pointed out, “This love craft brewers have for hops refocuses attention on the plant.” IPA deserves some of the credit. It hardly seems likely it will fall out of fashion soon, but that’s no reason to be pissed off about the attention it is getting.

Two examples. The popularity of Union Jack India Pale Ale has helped fund expansion at Firestone Walker, which is why you can get Pivo Hoppy Pils, dry hopped with generous portions of Saphir. Likewise at Marble Brewery in New Mexico. Its IPA drives growth, so beers like Marble Pilsner — brimming with perfumey Old World Hersbrucker hops — end up getting packaged. These are good things.

I seem to have wandered off topic. Hops will do that. Lord know what I’ll write about on IPA Day. Maybe coffee-infused wood-aged extreme saison IPAs.

Under the radar, all things are relative

Marble Brewery in Albuquerque recently installed three more fermenters (above, on the left), each holding 45 barrels (almost 1,400 gallons). Marble brews mostly ales, so running 26 batches through each fermenter over the course of a year would constitute a leisurely pace and still yield more than 3,500 barrels.

Now consider this. When Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi founded Sierra Nevada thirty years ago the business plan called for production to max out at 3,000 barrels. “We figured we could make money at that, we wouldn’t get rich but we’d get by,” said Grossman, now the company president. Sierra Nevada produced 1,500 barrels the first year (1980) and passed 3,000 in its fifth. It now brews nearly 700,000 annually.

All things are relative. Yesterday Stephen Beaumont pointed to a Wall Street Journal story about U.S. beer sales volume falling. He suggests this is a victory for boire moins, boire mieux (drink less, drink better). I’m certainly on board with the drink better part.

He writes that the WSJ “doesn’t see this because they’re used to looking only at the large, public corporation side of things.” Indeed, 3,000 barrels here, 3,000 barrels there . . . nothing to the global beer powers. But 3,000 barrels equals close to one million 12-ounce bottles. To those of us buying niche beers that’s a lot of bottles.

Before 2009 no New Mexico brewery since Prohibition (and we don’t have numbers from before) had brewed 5,000 barrels. Marble made 5,200 last year, an increase from 1,950 in 2008 (the brewery began selling beer in April that year). The increase was a ridiculous 267 percent, the actual growth 3,250 barrels.

OK, you never heard of Marble. That’s part of the point. Also Great Divide Brewing in Colorado grew a little over 3,000 barrels (34 percent) in 2009 to about 12,000 barrels. And sales at Saint Arnold Brewing in Texas increased 13 percent (production rising not quite 3,000 barrels) to nearly 26,000 barrels.

We’ll never know how much Bud Light Lime A-B InBev sold in the Albuquerque area in 2009. Maybe it was more than 3,000 barrels, but it’s still just another brand passing through. Before that it was Miller Chill. Nothing changes.

But things have changed in the cooler at the only market in the village where I live. Corrales is an anomaly, long and narrow with about 8,000 people and no stop lights. Albuquerque and Rio Rancho are hard by and that’s where most people shop. Drive two miles past Frontier Mart and there’s a full-size grocery store with cheaper milk and a fully stocked liquor store.

Still, Frontier always had a solid, if limited, wine selection and the usual “craft” beer suspects. Then this fall they squeezed soft drinks into one cooler facing, making room for many more beers. Instead of just offering Sierra Nevada Pale Ale they have Torpedo. Always something from Deschutes and Full Sail. More than Fat Tire from New Belgium. And at least four New Mexico beers.

A-B InBev still owns the floor display, including its lineup of beers brewed in Belgium, but this is real change. Change not so easily measured by numbers.


Of course we’re headed back to number season, and there’s every chance figures for 2009 may not look as glossy as recent years. We know Boston Beer production was up 1.6 percent in 2009, and Samuel Adams sales seldom stray far from the rest of craft (in no small part because they account for more than one bottles sold out of every five). In 2008 the category was up six percent, Sam Adams six percent. In 2007, Sam Adams 14 percent and “craft” 12 percent. You get the idea.


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