Can We Do Better Than “IPA?”
Earlier this week, I was sitting over a pint of gose with Breakside brewmaster Ben Edmunds, and he asked a question that helped crystallize something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
“What,” he wondered, “do you call a low-ABV lager made with a bunch of late-addition hops and dry-hopped?” (This is a paraphrase—we were just drinking beer and I wasn’t taking notes.) Breakside, like a lot of American breweries, makes many beers that lean heavily on the word “IPA” to communicate juicy hopping to customers—a session IPA, a session golden ale, a regular IPA (for which Breakside won a gold medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival) and even a kettle-soured beer that could be called a “sour IPA” if he wanted to call it that. There are of course many more IPAs out there: double, triple, white, black, red, fruit, rye, Belgian, Brett and even India pale lagers.
In one way, it’s really not a problem. From the consumer’s perspective, it works. Those three letters indicate a pretty specific basket of qualities: vivid hop flavors and aromas, possibly bitter, but certainly juicy, fresh and alive. That those flavors come from certain hop varieties and particular techniques (late-addition, post-boil, and dry-hopping) is probably largely unknown to them. Instead they go by the Judge Potter Stewart standard: they know it when they see (or rather taste and smell) it. For the average consumer, “IPA” is completely disconnected from the historical style—it just means juicily hoppy. So when you attach it to any other adjective (session, white, Belgian, etc.), all it does is designate the presence of the juicily hoppy character.
So yes, if Ben made a 4.8% lager made with pilsner and Vienna malt, infused it with that juicy hoppiness, he could probably call it a helles IPA. (The helles part would be a lot more confusing than the IPA.) But the implicit point in his question is evident—by the time you’re making a helles IPA, you’ve stretched that poor adjective so far it hardly has any meaning left.
(It’s worth pausing to acknowledge something profound about this conundrum. It arises because, for the first time in hundreds of years, a new national brewing tradition has arrived. I mentioned to Ben that in Europe this problem is a lot easier to address. There they just call these kinds of beers “American.” Everyone instantly understands what the sense of the word means, and it can be applied to any beer style. Use “American-style” to describe a beer, and people immediately expect those saturated American hop flavor and aromas, just as surely as the word “Belgian” causes people to expect a beer with loads of yeast character. It’s not that the techniques are entirely new, it’s that they’re used to create flavors that are; in the history of brewing, no country has ever gone to the lengths we have to infuse beer with the flavor of hops. It has become the “American” way of brewing, and it has sparked imitations across the globe. Which is pretty cool, when you think about it that way.)
Breweries in the United States inherited brewing terms from other countries. Before we completely bent them out of their original shape, we brewed bitters and pilsners and kölsches and saisons—and IPAs. Now we brew things that don’t look like beers in other countries and yet we’re left with that inheritance, and the more and more we develop our own style of brewing, the less those terms serve us. The problem is not purely academic, either. Ben posed the question because it’s starting to become a real problem in communication. We lack the language to describe the place American beer has arrived. He’s not sure how to tell customers what to expect when he makes a new beer.
Here we arrive at the point of the post toward which a cleverer blogger would have been building—the big reveal, where I tell you what the new term should be. But I haven’t a clue. It works brilliantly outside our borders, but “American-style” just isn’t going to cut it at home. We need a better term.
Fortunately, I’ve learned the Internet is smarter than I am. So what say you, oh wise hive mind? Is IPA the best we can do, or is there a better term to describe this new, native style of brewing we’ve invented? I (and Ben, too, I think) await your wisdom anxiously.