The biggest trend in Connecticut beer these days is the IPA. Once known as the Indian Pale Ale and now referred to the Imperial Pale Ale by many breweries, the IPA currently enjoys a majority placement on beer taps across New England. For some beer drinkers (especially those just getting into the hobby), the IPA is the holy grail of beer and deserves to dominate taps statewide. But I have to ask: is this singular focus actually good for Connecticut beer? As with most things in life, that’s a complicated question.
It’s fair to say the New England IPA is what helped put Connecticut beer on the map. By taking a fairly traditional style (one I’ll detail in a future blog post) and pushing it far beyond its breaking point, brewers in the larger New England area created a new style of beer that fascinated everyone. Here was a beer that (arguably) matched the spirit of those who made it; the New England IPA (or just Imperial Pale Ale) is big, brash, diverse, and unique. This, perhaps, was the start of the local IPA craze; since CT got put on the map for the NEIPA, many people were itching to try more IPA’s made locally by experts.
How Does This Benefit Connecticut Beer?
This craze has arguably helped launch the majority of small breweries in Connecticut. In fact, most breweries have leaned into this popularity; I can’t think of one brewery off the top of my head that doesn’t have at least three IPA’s on at any given time! The same goes for most serious beer bars. Typically a “beer-centric” bar will have around 50 – 60% of their lines filled with IPA’s, while smaller bars, sports bars, and the like may have upwards of 70 – 100% IPA’s on for their craft beer option. The reason for this, obviously, is that IPA’s sell big. Real big. The current market for this style is huge, making it an easy entryway for brewers, and an easy market for bars to cash in on.
So What’s the Problem?
One “problem” I see right off the bat (depending on personal taste) is a lack of variety. I think beer is meant to be explored and these days it’s rather difficult to leave hoppy IBU land! A more serious issue, though, centers around breweries — especially smaller ones. To stay in business, a brewery must brew IPA’s, usually several different styles. It’s not an option really; the amount of money lost if they didn’t offer more than one or two IPA’s in tasting rooms would be substantial! And yet I’ve found (anecdotally, of course) that when I ask any bar manager, brewer, or rep about the current IPA trend, I get either a sigh, an eye-roll, or a resigned shrug. The story I get from insiders is that they’re well sick of IPA styles at this point, but hey — it sells like crazy. Now some may be saying, “Ok Brian, so what?” But let’s consider this: what happens when the trend changes?
Going With the Flow
Bigger breweries won’t have as much of a problem when it’s time to pivot away from the IPA. After all, they have whole marketing teams dedicated to sales analytics and staying on top of trends. They’ll identify the next highest market and just go for it. But what about the small brewery? The one who has devoted 75-90% of its production making trendy IPA varieties? They’re the ones who may not have the resources required to turn on a dime. Once IPA sales start sagging (whether it’s in the next year or in the next five), the small breweries will have to figure out how to essentially change their entire production lineup on the fly — while everyone else is trying to do the same thing.
The Takeaway & My Thoughts
Therein lies my frustration with the style. For all the amazing things it has done for Connecticut beer, it also serves as a restraint — breweries are forced to put a significant amount of their resources towards brewing IPA’s if they have any hope of making it. Complicating things further, newer beer fans (typically the ones who primarily drink IPA’s) can’t even try new styles and expand their pallets because breweries and bars primarily serve IPA’s! I get that IPA’s are important for business, but what I would like to see is maybe keeping production and bar lines to 50% IPA’s. Let’s keep being creative — Connecticut beer was founded on unrestrained experimentation, so let’s keep the new styles coming! Keeping local styles diverse will help create more well-rounded beer drinkers, which will make it much easier for breweries to pivot away from IPA’s once the trend goes into decline. And for the beer drinkers, here’s my challenge: try something new every third beer or so! Remember, the IPA family is just one branch on the massive, beautiful tree that we call beer. A whole world of flavor lies at your fingertips, you just have to reach out and sip it.
Join me every Thursday on Facebook and Instagram for my Tasting Note Thursdays (this week, for appeasement, is an IPA), and please leave a comment! Am I nuts? Not seeing things right? Dead on the money? I’d like to know. Until next time, I’ll see you where the pints live. Cheers!