In the past five to seven years, the craft beer industry has been in something of an arms race — the beers kept getting bigger, bolder, hoppier — and consumers, for the most part, gobbled them up.
The India Pale Ale, or IPA, is the hoppy, flavorful style that resurrected the craft beer industry after the rapid rise and fall in the 1990s.
It’s the beer that lures people to line up outside Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa for five hours or more for the annual release of Pliny the Younger. It’s the beer — the unfiltered/hazy version — that a few years back made Moonraker Brewing in Auburn one of the top new breweries in the nation.
If you’ve ever had the fabulous — and fabulously bitter — Simtra Triple IPA by Auburn’s Knee Deep, you’re unlikely to argue with the brewery’s boast that it “delivers a punch in the face with its very dank hop aroma.”
While IPA is better, more nuanced and more popular than ever, it’s also the style that continues to keep many would-be craft beer drinkers on the outside looking in.
In 2018, U.S. craft beer sales of $27.6 billion accounted for nearly 25 percent of the beer market. That’s a tremendous increase from just a few years ago, but it still means three out of four American beer drinkers are still buying beer that excites or inspires absolutely no one. So the savvy craft breweries throughout the Capital Region are finding a way to attract new consumers who might be wary of IPAs with a variety of options like Mexican-style lagers, German and Czech — or even California-style dry-hopped Pilsners or traditional or new and creative stouts.
Turns out, not everyone wants a punch in the face, a smack upside the head or even a mildly bitter refrain on the mid-palate. I’ve heard that lament about IPAs from friends and readers for years. They don’t like hoppy beer. They don’t like bitter. It’s too harsh. It’s overwhelming.
“There is a specific flavor profile that goes with IPAs and not everybody likes that,” says Heidi Wilder, co-owner of Fort Rock Brewing in Rancho Cordova. “A lot of the hoppy beers are just so bitter now and are turning some people off. That’s one of the reasons I’m seeing a resurgence of lagers.”
The best-selling beer at Fort Rock, nestled along Highway 50 and a popular stopping place for those traveling to and from Tahoe, is its award-winning Folsom Dam Good Pilsner. It’s a lager that’s smoother and more approachable than the standard IPA.
When Ken Anthony opened Device Brewing six years ago in Sacramento, his featured beers tended to be big, bitter IPAs.
“Back then, everybody was enjoying discovering the new hop flavors and different ways of making IPAs. Now that I’ve been in the business for this long, my palate has mellowed out to where I prefer more subtle, nuanced beers where the flavor is so delicate where you can really appreciate the skill and execution of the craft,” he says. “I think we’re seeing a surge in lagers. We have a lot of craft beer consumers being exposed to more styles than just IPAs. The brewing talent out there wants to make lagers because they are very difficult to make.”
At Elk Grove’s Flatland Brewing, owner/brewer Andrew Mohsenzadegan says the IPA isn’t what it used to be. When new craft beer customers say they don’t like IPAs, the question just might be: When was the last time you had one?
“The easiest transition,” Mohsenzadegan says, “is to get them into a hazy IPA. They’re soft and luscious and fruity. They’re texture-driven beers. We’re loading in more hop than we typically use for a West Coast IPA. There’s zero bitterness.”
So, yes, those folks who complained to me about bitter beer more than likely have not had a hazy. It’s an entirely new and approachable drinking experience. It doesn’t smell, taste or look like “beer.” The good ones have notes of tangerine, pineapple or peaches, the texture in the mouth often seems juicy.
These beers, which began in New England, have become so popular across the country that it is uncommon to visit a brewery that doesn’t have one hazy IPA on tap.
Flatland isn’t banking on low-key beers — essentially a better Budweiser — to draw in more consumers. Beyond his bestselling hazy IPA, Mohsenzadegan suggests folks try a sour beer. It’s fruity. It’s fun. It can be tart or sweet or just plain different.
“That just opens up their world where they say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know beer could do this,’” he says. “We still want to maintain excitement and energy behind the beers, along with the passion and the creativity. A pilsner, which is great, is not the most exciting to brew. Plus, a traditional pilsner is not really what people want.”
Derek Gallanosa, the head brewer at Moksa in Rocklin, has become renowned for an ever-changing collection of stouts — creatively flavored “pastry stouts.” He’s heard for years that many folks aren’t into IPAs and he knows why: “What they don’t like is bitterness. Bitterness is typically not in the American diet, so they’re not used to.”
A look at the recent beers on tap at Moksa show half are stouts — darker, maltier, sweeter than an IPA — with ingredients that may boggle the minds of the uninitiated. The Cold Cocoa Nitro is an oatmeal coffee stout with vanilla beans and cacao nibs; the Trufflicious contains blackberries, hazelnuts, cacao and vanilla.
But Moksa also embraces IPAs, and Gallanosa insists the anti-IPA crowd just might be surprised by what craft beer is doing with hops in 2019. “It’s no longer about bitterness. It’s about flavor now,” he says. “Our IPAs are easy-drinking and not too heavy. We have turned around a lot of people and many people are coming back to the West Coast IPA. It’s clearer, more drinkable, not as sweet, and the bitterness is restrained.”
So there you have it. If you don’t like IPAs, there are plenty of options — sours, stouts, pilsners and, yes, the ever-evolving IPA.
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Dark beers have developed a serious sweet tooth.