Over at Beervana there's an article asking optimistically (or rhetorically) if one day IPA could be the dominant style of beer in the USA.
Jeff points out, correctly, that fashions in beer change, often quite dramatically when you look at it from a historical perspective. This shouldn't really surprise us — who would imagine trends in politics, clothing or music to stay the same decade after decade? — but most of us have been trained to think of beer as something traditional, reliable and unchanging, so it's important to keep pointing out that beer is dynamic, not just today but throughout its history.
He then goes on to argue that since public taste changes, it's possible to envisage a dramatic shift towards craft beer, and I have no quarrel with that idea. Where I think he gets it wrong is in the assumption that American IPA could become the everyday beer of the average American.
To demonstrate the historical volatility of beer consumption patterns, Jeff uses the example of Berliner Weisse, which declined from 700 breweries in the 19th century to virtual extinction today; but it actually shows the opposite of what he wants it to show. It means that most people, excluding a small number of aficionados, moved away from Weisse as soon as something less challenging became available.
I can't think of anywhere that very bitter beer has been to the taste of the majority for an extended period. Just look at the past and what the most popular beer was. When Porter went into decline in Britain, Mild, not India Pale Ale, took its place.
Jeff says, "A hundred years later, mild accounted for more than half of all draft sales--but it was on the wane. Bitter was already on the rise." Bitter did indeed supplant Mild – but not for long. It only took another fifteen years for Lager to decisively take the lead in the UK beer market.
And what happened to Bitter? It held on in the cask sector, but at what a price. Buy a big-name Bitter now and it's often a sweet, toffeeish exercise in blandness. I'd rather have a decent Mild. Most of the drinkers of such beers would probably like Mild better too; it's just that they won't actually buy it because it's too unfashionable — or brewers and pubs won't offer it because they think it's too unfashionable. So instead, Bitter adapted itself to the sweeter palate of those who should by rights be drinking Mild.
The same thing happened in Germany. When Export became unfashionable, drinkers switched to the seemingly more upmarket Pils. They liked the sophisticated image, but not the bitterness, and mass-market Pils have become less bitter as a result. More recently, German brewers have found success with so-called "Gold" beers, even less bitter than Export.
My conclusion: Really bitter beer is never the most popular kind for more than a few years. Most people actually want something a little sweeter and less challenging. That doesn't mean they won't go for a beer that's tastier and fuller in flavour than what they drink now; it just means the majority will choose wheat beers and amber ales rather than 80 IBU hop monsters.
So while I think Jeff is right that the craft beer sector is going to keep growing, more than any of us currently imagine, I don't believe IPA will ever be the most popular beer in America.
Unless they take the hops out of their IPA like we did with most of ours.