In a recent post on “The Drinking Classes,” Jon Urch made the provocative case that IPAs are “doomed.” The most insightful part of his case was this:
The modern IPA is so loaded with delicate hop oils it can barely go a few weeks without losing its complex, dank, citrusy aroma – maybe less if it’s a real hop bomb. (Last year I snared a fresh four pack of Heady Topper and drank a can every weekend for four weeks. There was a marked, super noticeable drop off in aroma and impact with each one.)
I’m not sure this is an entirely intractable situation—for example in response, Stan Hieronymus asks “are aroma/flavor stability and this aroma/flavor itself truly incompatible?”—but Urch’s point is well-taken. For the most part, IPAs are just better when they’re super fresh. This obvious truth in turn got me thinking about how the tyranny of bottles and cans drive the beer market. Urch’s doom creeps toward IPA because Americans drink 90% of their beer out of bottles and cans. But what if they didn’t? What if American drinkers rediscovered their love of draft beer and started hitting the pubs more often?
As it happens, this appears to already be happening—at least where it matters. Draft sales in that range we call “craft beer” (for the sake of discussion, anything that’s not a mass market lager or import) are far ahead of the market in general. According to the best estimates by the Brewers Association, fully a third of craft beer is sold on draft. And, based on some number crunching by BA economist Bart Watson, those states where craft beer is strongly embedded drink the most draft beer: Vermont, Oregon, Colorado, Maine, Washington and (surprisingly) Montana. It’s even more exaggerated in my home state, where over a quarter of the beer consumed falls into that “craft” category (double the national average). Here, craft beer constitutes a staggering two-thirds of all the beer sold on draft.
The kind of beer people drink depends in part on how it’s packaged. The U.K. offers the clearest case: sessionable ales are consumed in far greater proportion in pubs—on cask—than they are in grocery stores. Cask ale was designed to be drunk in pubs, and pub-going sustains this range of beer. (After long decades of decline, I’m happy to report it’s on a sharp growth curve, too.) It’s true in Germany as well, where delicate helles lagers and kölsch are consumed heavily in the pubs. If pub culture bottoms out in Germany and the U.K. the way it has in America, we would expect to see a shift in beer preferences. I’ve spoken with anxious brewers in London and Cologne who fret about the slowly eroding culture of pub-going, knowing that their sales are tied to the venues at which customers drink.
But perhaps those forces can work in reverse, too. Might it not become the case that our shifting beer preferences in the U.S. might drive us back into pubs? Most consumers are probably not aware of the effect of dissolved oxygen levels and staling rates in their favorite IPAs, but what they do recognize is that beer just tastes better at the brewery (and at reliable taprooms). It’s no surprise that people of an earlier generation didn’t feel the need to get to the pubs to get their Budweiser fresh—nor much of a surprise that pub-going was so rare in a country that only served fizzy pale lager. But what happens when beer preferences change?
There are many delights in heading down to the neighborhood pub, particularly now that it is an airy, well-lit, family-friendly venue. But surely the biggest draw is the fresh beer—and it appears IPAs are actually driving this. Lew Bryson recently observed that IPAs are starting to dominate tap lists at pubs: “I’ve been at beer bars where over three-quarters of the taps were pouring some variation on an IPA, or at least something that called itself an IPA.” Pubs put on the beers they think will sell, and people are clearly clamoring for IPAs. Maybe that’s partly because they’re draft IPAs. (At the supermarket, the style leads all others, but only accounts for a quarter of all sales.)
There is a constant conversation between brewers and their customers. We almost always remove the context in which people drink beer from the kinds of beer they drink—but it’s a big part of that conversation. Brewers recognize their bottled IPAs have to survive longer on the shelves, so they engineer them differently. Customers, increasingly, are recognizing that the IPAs breweries serve draft-only have extra-special juicy qualities only freshness can ensure. The unintended consequence of this may be a permanent spike in draft consumption. Not a bad accident, when you think about it.