It's easy fodder for beer writers to run down IPAs. That's not what this is. I love IPAs.
Yes, many find them overplayed, like a "song of the summer" by October. IPAs are everywhere. Nearly every brewery brews one, even those that swear at their inception that they're not going to brew one just because people want it (and then do anyway). Yes, even things that aren't IPAs are called IPAs (Brown IPA, Black IPA, Red IPA, Belgian IPA, White IPA) and that's before we even get to IPLs and DIPAs.
But I still love IPAs because they act as a great post-gateway beer. Much like a Dan Brown novel, they seem really interesting and complex at first, even if after a while you start to think of them as kind of obvious and not nearly as profound as you thought initially.
If that's what gets you reading, then by all means, grab yourself a copy of The Da Vinci Code. If that's what keeps you drinking craft beer, then by all means, order yourself the latest IPA.
And before the IPA-o-philes jump all over me, yes, I know that IPAs aren't easy to make. I know that they're not all bitter hop bombs and that they can be as complex as any other beer in the market. I even know that some of the best beers in the world are IPAs.
But that doesn't make me wrong on this.
The Post-Gateway Beer
Much is written in craft beer circles about "gateway beers." You know, the pale ale, Kolsch, Vienna lager, or some such beer that gets the macro-lager drinker headed down the path towards beer nerd-dom. They order that first craft beer, and they like what they taste.
But what about their next beer?
It's my argument that one reason for the continuing and growing popularity of IPAs (about 1 in 4 craft beers is an IPA, approaching 1 in 3) is that they are the second (and sometimes final) step for people when they get into craft beer. They've nibbled around the edges at the more-approachable styles, and then they walk into a beer bar with a dozen IPAs of various varieties on tap. They order one. Then another. Then another.
Positive Reinforcement Training: It's Not Just for Dogs
People love IPAs because their flavors are usually pretty obvious. You're going to smell hops. You're going to taste hops. You're going to experience bitterness. In a great many cases, you're also going to get an obvious hit of alcohol. You expect these things, and when you find them, you give yourself a nice little pat on the back, mentally. "Yes!," you think, "I, too, have a good beer palate!" And not only can you identify these flavors for what they are, you have a ready-made vocabulary to discuss them with others. After all, most IPAs are pitching flavor profiles that fall squarely into the fruity character, and usually a citrus or tropical fruit character, which makes them easy to describe. "Wow, check out the pineapple notes on that one..." And even if your companions disagree ("Seems more like grapefruit to me," "I'm getting mango," etc.) you can all agree that there might be lots of different hops in there so you're ALL right!
They even let you criticize them easily. "Bitterness is a little too harsh." "I don't know if pine works in this beer." You get to have those deep beer conversations with little risk of being contradicted.
That's a tougher challenge with, for example, a Munich Dunkel. Or an Irish Red. Or a German Altbier.
And, let's face it, IPAs generally taste pretty good. Strong fruit flavors are popular, and with the fun new hops hitting the market so regularly, there's an increasing variety of flavors and (thanks to lower-cohumulone hops and all-late-hopping tendencies) softer bittering.
The Persistence of IPAs
Some of this increase is undoubtedly the result of more people "discovering" craft beer - but that alone wouldn't explain it because they'd also be experimenting with other styles. Some is also undoubtedly the result of the availability of IPAs in the marketplace - but that alone doesn't explain it because bars tend to stock what sells, and while selection can dictate popularity within a market it wouldn't do so for long unless IPAs sold better than the other options available.
No, I think that the simple reason is that IPAs give people pleasant and obvious flavors in a way that offers just enough variety (thank you, hop farmers!) to keep them interested. Just like a Dan Brown novel, they keep you turning the pages, and even if the ending isn't great, you were entertained.
IPAs get the job done. They're a relatively safe bet in an increasingly complicated craft beer world.
And if that's what keeps you buying craft beer, then I love them for it.
Keep it simple.