A Beer Has No Name: IPA's Existential Crisis

I don't know what IPA is anymore.  And I don't think it knows, either.  Practically speaking, we've reached a point where the designation is largely meaningless.

Appearance: Bone white to jet black.
Bittering: None to teeth-ripping
Flavor: Who the hell knows?
ABV: 3.5-16.5%

Every style has variability - I get that.  I'm not pushing for constriction or mandates or uniformity.  But can we at least acknowledge that the name we put on something should matter, at least a little bit?  

Because at this point, you could call something "beer" instead of "IPA" and probably create as useful an expectation for what's in the bottle.

You Already Know Why

There's no mystery here: IPA sells.  People have come to conflate it with "craft beer that tastes like more than fermented rice syrup."  I've heard lots of folks "explain" that there's "lager and IPA."  I don't mind that, to be perfectly honest, because not everyone's a deep-diving maven on every topic, so they grab on to labels to help organize their knowledge of something, even if it's in a low-information way.  It's like how when I talk about film editing I'll probably misuse the terms "jump cut" and "match cut," because I'm not a professional film editor.  That's normal.  That's rational.  And that's why names matter.  But I've already been down that road.  More than once, apparently.  

So when a brewery slaps "IPA" on something, some large number of them are doing it for marketing purposes.  I'm sure they know that what they made isn't really in the realm of what has traditionally been called IPA, but they'll call it that anyway, either because they're convinced that theirs is a creative interpretation of the style or, more cynically, because they know it'll be easier to get and hold a tap with that label.

I don't care about motive, here, especially.


Where things start getting squirrelly for me is when beer geeks start redefining IPA in ways that seem to eliminate its usefulness as a style category.

Let's leave aside most of the "typical" controversies (maybe someday I'll get bored enough to dive into the great haze debate).  I just want to focus on one:


If there's one thing I could always say about IPA - in all of its varied forms, shapes, colors, strengths, and flavor profiles, it's that it was bitter.  It's a defining feature of the style, and so far as I know it always has been.  But now I'm regularly hearing from folks who are trying to tell me that their "Double IPA" has 20 IBUs.  Or that their standard IPA doesn't have any at all.  

"Nope!  ALL late hopping!" 

Then, forgive me, that's not an IPA.  Or, if it is, then there's nothing defining left of the style.  The name is meaningless.  A beer has no name.  


I can already hear the objections: "No, you don't understand: it's still really hoppy, though, and that's what makes it an IPA."

OK, let's explore that.  What you're saying is that any color, clarity, strength, or bittering level fits as an IPA...so long as the beer has medium-to-high hop flavor and/or aroma?  

Pilsner: IPA (IPL?).
American Pale, Amber, Brown ales: IPA
Altbier: German IPA
English pale ales: Session English IPAs
Kellerbier: Unfiltered IPA
American Porter: Black IPA
American Stout: Also Black IPA
American Wild Ales: Sour IPA

Hell, even the European lagers can feature moderate hop aroma.  

Basically, anything except Belgians are IPAs...unless they're Belgian IPAs.

So you've created a difference without a distinction.

The Appearance and the Reality of a Lack of Choice

If you have something that can include everything, then it arguably means nothing.  Maybe that's just the way we're trending: "IPA" means whatever anyone wants, with a general kind of presumption that it means Americanized or Craft.  If so, it's a bad call. It means that, without doing some reading, you're not going to know if you have a 90-IBU tongue-scraper on your hands or something that's basically a Beermosa.  

It'll sell well, though, I'm sure...for a while.

I'm not predicting the derailment of the IPA Train, quite.  But I'll say this: one of the biggest complaints that craft beer drinkers had in the bad old days was that tap lists were just wall-to-wall light lagers - it was just a question of which one you could tolerate or had identified with.

We're heading back that way, just with IPA instead of macro lager.

On the one hand, this is real.  Go to any "craft beer bar" (or something trying to be) and you'll probably see quite the run of 6-7%, 60-IBU, generally-pale IPAs on offer.  The same also goes for bars that want to carry a couple of "craft" taps: I've virtually never seen one where those 2-3 taps aren't IPAs.  

On the other hand, though, this is illusory - and becoming more so - because of this "catch-all" nomenclature of the IPA.  Even if there's a range of beers on offer, practically, it's hard to know that because everything's labeled "IPA."

And IPA is now, from a communication standpoint, a hollow name.  It doesn't mean anything.  

This has a simple solution, by the way: just call things what they are.  Don't jam them into an ill-fitting "new" nomenclature when they already have a name.  If something is closer to our typical understanding of Porter than our typical understanding of IPA, call it a Porter.  Proximity.  A "spatial" theory of beer style names.  Because, as previously discussed, these names are the single best and easiest tool we have to have some idea of what we're getting when we buy/order beer.

IPA Doesn't Exist Anymore

What's the practical impact of this one-beer-size-fits-all naming approach?  It means IPA doesn't exist anymore.  It's like how "trucks" wouldn't exist anymore if I could sell you a motorcycle and claim it's a "two-wheeled open-air no-cargo light truck."

Trucks can come in all kinds of shapes and configurations.  There are extended cabs, bed-covered things that look more like SUVs, compact trucks, panel trucks, heavy duty and super duty and light duty, and more.  We know what a truck is.

This kind of nominal "death by smothering" is a fascinating way for the IPA to go out: in plain sight, on every tap list, as the best-selling craft beer.  

I honestly wonder if and when we'll actually get around to noticing that it's pulling a "Weekend at Bernie's" and masquerading as alive, when in reality it's been dead for some time.

Keep it simple.


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