Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Why The USA Will Not Become An IPA Country

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.


  1. Very interesting. Like Mild, even if it is not fashionable. Like all kinds of Beer. Although Porter is my least favourite. Really if tastes good, does not matter what style it is. You are right though. These things go in cycles.

  2. The line between an amber ale and a bitter is still a hazy one in the UK.

    That sweetness you refer to in the bitters has been largely swept aside, but many new breweries still shy away from using the name 'bitter' and opt instead for the increasingly meaningless 'ale' moniker.

    Bitter, by definition, needs to be an ale which is not sweet. It needs to be that both in terms of definition and in terms of sustaining popularity. We learned that lesson via decades of poor sales. (The sweet bitter years!)

    It's time to wear the bitter badge with pride again, I believe.

  3. A bit like Gazza Prescott saying that mid-Atlantic pale ales are "slowly taking over the beer culture of the UK."

  4. Interesting post and fair point. I can only speak on the Australian beer scene, here we are seeing growth in both the mildly hoppy beers (Little Creatures & the lesser imitator Fat Yak) as well as a gut load of bland low carb beers that fit in the non chalenging category, bearing more of a resemblence to mineral water than beer.

    If only I were king and could enforce Australia becoming an IPA country! That would be a good day.

  5. As I've said before, I don't believe that generally "people's tastes change" in things like beer, I believe moslty (and more powerfully) new entrants come in with new tastes, and those people with the "old" taste slowly die out: it wasn't that people switched from mild to lager, but that mild drinkers died off and the 18-year-olds that were replacing them drank lager. Similarly I doubr that people "moved away from" Berliner Weisse - more likely Berliner Weisse drinkers carried on drinking it until they were carried off, but gradually new entrants to the Prussian beer market were arriving who started with something other than Weisse and stuck to it.

    What that means for future beer trends I have no idea - but the first generation of British lager drinkers is in its mid to late 50s now, and it may well be that their grandsons and granddaughters will be entering the beer buying market with a rather different outlook …

  6. BOB in Georgia, USA26 January 2011 at 18:56

    For IPA to be a big hit in the USA, there'd have to be a Budweiser/Miller/Coors version of it.
    It'd have to cost the same as the yellow fizzy.
    It would also have to have the massive advertising campaign.
    They would have to start with the 21year olds. Let it run for a generation, so their kids can see their daddy drinking Bud IPA.
    After that, create the IPA Light.

    Do all this, then we might be an IPA country.

    In the mean time, I won't be holding my breath for the Budweiser IPA Lite sponsored NASCAR.

  7. BOB in GA is right. Bud Light is the most popular beer in the US. Asking IPA to over shadow American Light lagers, (light in both color and alcohol) would be like asking Lutheranism to overtake Islam. For 90% of Americans, beer IS Bud or Coors Light. Not just out of ignorance, either. Availability becomes an issue. When you get to the middle of the United States, distribution becomes difficult. In some case, towns are separated by a hundred miles. Distributors are not going to offer a product that there is no demand for, especially when they have to travel such distances. The other issue is of a historic context. Lager has been the predominant, mass produced, beer in the US for decades. The influx of German immigrants at the end of the 19th and beginning of the twentieth centuries, set up the US to be lager-land. Large scale ale production was dead by the turn of the century. The establishment and development of the major, US, mega-breweries, came out of Germanic brewing traditions, catering to large a population, spread across millions of desolate square miles.