Speaking to The Morning Advertiser last year, beer writer Roger Protz described India Pale Ale, or IPA, as “the most popular beer style in the world”, and it is virtually impossible to go into a pub in the UK nowadays and not see one on the bar.
Last weekend (29-31 March), thousands of hop-hungry punters descended on Northern Monk brewery for Hop City 2018 – a festival dedicated almost entirely to IPA, but how did the style become synonymous with craft beer in the UK and what does the future hold for hoppy beers?
Modern, accessible style
One brewery that knows a thing or two about brewing hoppy beer is Manchester’s Cloudwater Brew Co. The modern brewery, barely three years old, has won numerous plaudits and awards for its hazy, hop-forward beers. Founder Paul Jones believes part of the reason IPA has proven so popular is because of how different it is from traditional British beer.
“The background in UK beer, especially among family brewers making cask beer, is based around the flavour imparted by yeast,” he explains. “Modern brewing comes along and puts hops at the centre. You can only get the flavour of hops in beer, unlike in other beer styles where flavour profiles might reference wine, fruit, bread, the flavour of an IPA or a pale ale can only come from hops.
“If you’re going catch a bug for those flavours, IPA and pale ale is where you are going to get it.”
Jon Swain, founder of London’s Hackney Brewery, echoes this sentiment: “The style is the total antithesis of what had gone before in terms of British cask beer; which had this perception as being brown, dull and bitter.
“When the first IPAs came to the market they were just so different and everyone had that ingrained in their mind.
“Fruity, floral and hop forward beers just became the flavours people wanted when they went to the bar, and hence people associate IPA with modern, innovative and exciting beers.”
“People associate IPA with modern, innovative and exciting beers”
– Jon Swain, founder at Hackney Brewery
Another major factor in the growing popularity of IPA is the accessibility of the style. While more traditional West Coast incarnations of the style are known for their bitter, resinous characteristics, which can be challenging to new beer drinkers, the influx of softer, juicy East Coast IPAs, often described as New England IPAs (NEIPA), has opened up hoppy beer to a whole host of new consumers.
Christian Townsley, founder of North Bar and North Brewing Co in Leeds, believes that these modern interpretations can be hugely successful gateway beers to get more people drinking craft.
“At North Bar, we have seen some pretty unusual beers down the years and, ultimately, it’s about selling the beer to the consume and describing it in a way that is appealing,” he says. “New England IPA is very easy to describe and sell to people; it's juicy, it's soft and it tastes like stone fruit. That can be hugely palatable to non-beer drinkers.
“For someone who doesn’t normally drink beer at all, it’s an amazing gateway. My concern would be whether or not it will bring them into a broader range of beers, or will they just stay there and drink those types of beers.”
New England dominance
NEIPA certainly seems to be the dominant interpretation of IPA in the UK marketplace at present. At Hop City, breweries such as Other Half in Brooklyn, and Equilibrium Brewery in Upstate New York were busy slinging out fresh, hazy beers to consumers in their droves. The festival’s lead organiser Richard Brownhill agrees NEIPA has opened up craft beer to new drinkers, but points to the variety across the spectrum of IPA as a key reason for its enduring popularity as a style.
“For a lot of people, the flavour profile [in NEIPA] represents something that is really accessible and recognisable; the stone fruit flavours are really geared towards drinkability,” he says. “In the past we had the whole IBU race and trend towards more bitterness, which are more intense and aggressive flavours. I think that change has really opened the specialist market to a broader range of consumers.
“One of the things we tried to do when we sent out the invites for the festival was to ask the brewers to bring one showcase IPA, and then gave them the freedom with their second beer to be inventive and bring something a bit different; be that low strength or sour or whatever."
Russell Bisset, founder of Northern Monk, also shares this view. “In this building today alone, we have got almost every different style of IPA and, as a brewery, we have done everything from session IPAs to farmhouse IPAs and black IPAs,” he says. “It is a huge category and it is unique in that it is a style that does change rapidly over time.”
“For a lot of people, the flavour profile in NEIPA represents something that is really accessible and recognisable”
– Richard Brownhill, Hop City lead organiser
Although IPA is undoubtedly the most popular style among craft brewers and drinkers in the UK, it is far from being dominant in the wider marketplace, where lager is still king. According to the latest statistics from CGA, lager makes up an overwhelming 69% of value share of the UK market, and Jones believes this shows that the journey for UK drinkers towards hoppy, more flavoursome beers is only just beginning.
“If we think that we have turned a corner and reached that point now, we are probably getting a bit ahead of ourselves,” he warns. “We are just starting to develop a taste for fresh, hoppy beer in the UK. We are literally just starting that journey and it’s easy for those us who have been drinking those beers for five, 10 years already to feel like it is already a done thing but it really isn’t.
“Most of the beer drunk in the UK is nothing like what is being consumed and buzzed about here at this festival. Although it’s amazing that 3,000 people are in here drinking these beers, there will be tens of thousands of people in this city drinking lager or traditional beer.
“Consumers are starting to get used to a certain standard and quality, and that is what is going to be instrumental in driving things forward and bringing people in.”
The rise of the session IPA
So what exactly does the future hold for IPA as a style? What particular sub-styles will prove popular and help introduce craft beer to more drinkers? For many brewers, the real secret to growing the category lies in replicating the intense and appealing flavours an IPA at a more sessionable strength, rather than the classic 5.5% and higher ABV range in which it typically occupies.
“Low ABV hoppy beers have a huge place to fill in the UK market,” explains Townsley. “You can get fatigue from all of these big IPAs; they’re incredible but there is such a thing as having too much of a good thing, so something that is low in ABV will keep people interested. The Whiplash 2.8% table beer today has blown me away; to have that much flavour and mouthfeel at that strength is incredible.”
“It is part of UK culture to drink in volume,” adds Greg Hobbs, head brewer at The Five Points Brewing Company. “It sounds bad but people want something they can drink all day and still feel OK at the end of it; who is going to be able to do that realistically with Double IPA?
“Consumers still want something they can drink pints of, but that has flavour, body and mouthfeel, and session IPA ticks those boxes.”
“You can get fatigue from all of these big IPAs; they’re incredible but there is such a thing as having too much of a good thing”
– Christian Townsley, founder at North Brewing Co/North Bar
For Cloudwater, however, the importance of consistency and quality remains the key to growing IPA as a style.
“I think we’re going to see a much greater focus on subtle off-flavours that distract from positive experiences for the consumer,” Jones says. “Lowering diacetyl, yeast or hop-borne sulphurous off-flavours will become key aims for UK brewers. We’ll also see freshness continuing to be promoted and delivered to consumers through increased cold chain distribution, and direct to consumer sales.
“We may also see a greater experimentation with uncommon yeasts and mixed saccharomyces fermentations within IPA, but I don’t think that there will be any one revolutionary sub-style,” he continues. “I just think people are going to get used to the fact that you can get really highly hopped flavoursome beers that are anything from 2.5% ABV right up to 12%. Consumers are starting to get used to a certain standard and quality, and that is what is going to be instrumental in driving things forward and bringing people in.
“The variety is just going to thicken within the parameters that we have currently got.”