Niko Tonks is a co-founder and head brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative based in Northeast Minneapolis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.
Craft beer is all about variety, choice, an antidote to the sameness of industrial pale lager. Right? That’s the story we’ve been telling ourselves since the first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was birthed. And yet, 40 years later, all anyone seems to want to buy or drink is IPA. You could make the case that “IPA” as a catch-all has effectively become synonymous with “beer” to a lot of people, much in the way that Miller Lite used to be.
It’s pretty clearly the case, at least, that if you put “IPA” on something, it’ll sell better than if you didn’t. Just look at all the beers that have been pushed into an “IPA” category in the last couple of years. Hazy beers (not bitter at all, eschewing a pillar of the style, traditionally), milkshake beers (essentially alcohol candy), fruited IPA (ok, maybe?), a combination of all of the above (“hey, look at our melted snow cone in a glass!”), sour IPA, coffee IPA, black IPA and white IPA (RIP to both), IPL (sigh), Cold IPA (I’m still trying to make this happen), and now 4% ABV “low calorie IPA.”
I enjoy many of these styles, even some of the sillier ones, but the spread of the letters “IPA” across so much of the beer landscape is indicative of a problem that we as brewers and drinkers have: we’re losing diversity in beer styles and people are less willing to try dramatically new and different things than they were 10 years ago. This may sound crazy, because all anyone ever drinks are the latest and greatest, newest shiniest pints. So, of course, we’ve got choice out the wazoo, right? Choices, yes, but not necessarily diversity. In a counter-intuitive sense, the massive array of choices we have in front of us now is actually causing a consolidation of style diversity. It’s a bit of a paradox.
Economics play a role here: with a greater number of competing breweries in the market, it’s more difficult to get a draft line or a rail spot in a liquor store. For that reason, it pays (literally) to make the beer that you think has the absolute best shot of getting those lines and rails. If IPA is what people want and what they call for, it seems like a natural that you’d make an IPA, then, right? Say that works pretty well the first time: people like new stuff, so let’s make another IPA, that’ll be our best shot this time around. And so it goes, a mutually reinforcing cycle of increasing sameness in the market.
Let me just pause to say that I am not here to rail against IPA, or to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be drinking. We at Fair State make a ton of IPAs, and we try to work as much diversity into them as we possibly can. Keep drinking them, please. Thanks. What I am saying, though, is that one of the things that makes beer so great—the amazing range of flavors, aromas, colors, and textures possible—is increasingly hard to find in the market, and also increasingly difficult for brewers to continue to justify pursuing as a goal.
For example, we (Fair State) are debuting a subscription-based “bottle club” in 2019 called “Journeys and Sidequests.” The idea with this club is to produce super limited run beers that get delivered to subscribers who pay for all 10 of them in advance. Why, you ask, would the subscription model make a difference whether or not we make a given beer? Couldn’t we just release all of these into the market and hope for the best? Sadly, the answer is often that it just doesn’t make sense to take that bet. There are a number of beers that will debut in this club in 2019 that we couldn’t ever have brought to market otherwise. For some, this is due to exorbitant ingredient costs, some to the scarcity of ingredients, and others are due simply to their weirdness.
We’re incredibly lucky to have an audience for these beers, and for the other non-IPA things that we make (go drink more lagers! Seriously!), and we don’t take that for granted. Craft beer drinkers are, by and large, an adventurous sort that appreciates new things. Craft brewers are the same way. It’s easy, however, for all of us to mistake “new” for “different.” By all means, keep drinking your favorite IPA or the latest one to hit the shelves, but we should all remember to take the IPA blinders off now and then. Rediscover the classics. Buy three different Pilsners and appreciate the subtle (and not so subtle!) differences therein. Buy a bottle of proper bottle-conditioned Saison and marvel at the spiky carbonation and the breadth of flavor possible. Walk into the newest brewery in town and try the brown ale they’ve got on tap. Go on vacation somewhere and only drink the local adjunct lager. Remind yourself, like I try to do whenever I can, that beer is a marvelous and varied thing, and that we all have a role to play in keeping it that way.