“IPAs Are Like Fragile Butterflies”: A Conversation with Beer Writer Josh Bernstein

(Kaitlin McKeown/The Herald-Sun via AP)

According to the Brewers Association,  craft beer hasn’t slowed down, and the brewers only continue to grow, making up nearly 22 percent of the beer industry’s retail value. The rise of craft—or the “end of craft” depending on how you view it—owes its success to the the authenticity and devotion to full-bodied flavors, as well as a homemade, independent spirit.

Which is why, on National Beer Day, we’d like to share our recent interview with Josh Bernstein, the dean of craft beer writers and one of the first to fully articulate the innumerable sensations, like the hit of a Mosaic hop on the tongue, that accompany a sip of beer. Bernstein, who recently released, Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Craft Beer, spoke with Longreads about his—and the nation’s—obsession with India Pale Ales and the growing evolution of craft beer.

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Americans love IPAs, but how has the beer style changed in the past decade?

Back then, IPAs were all about aggression. Bitterness is great, but it turns as many off as it turns on. Big burly IPAs served a purpose, but they fell along with the imperial IPA pushWhat’s interesting to me is that IPAs are not all about bitterness, and brewers have begun to utilize hop varieties in different ways. The sledgehammer aspect of IPAs has disappeared, and been replaced with nuance.

[Hop varieties] Mosaic and Citra emphasized tropical, fruity, citrusy aromas. We are in this flavor-questing world right now. We want flavor in everything we do, from Thai takeout to beers, and hop varieties play within this new world. People start to spin IPAs in different directions: white IPAs, black IPAs, etc. People spun the color wheel to accentuate flavors like tropical fruits. The creativity has trickled down and it is dizzying. It used to be that Northeast IPAs were made in the English tradition, in which the malt was profound. Yhey were dark and sweet, which contrasted to the brightness of west coast IPAs. The last three years, though, Northeast IPAs have transformed to this hazy, juicy, and fruity beer with none of the bitterness.

IPAs have created a new template for beer that people can agree upon. The consumer wants flavor, and IPAs deliver in spades.

What was the tipping point for IPAs?

Definitely the beers of Vermont: Alchemist’s Heady Topper and Hill Farmstead. In 2012, I was stuck—snowed in—in Burlington. It was the best and the worst thing to happen to me. The local co-op had plenty of Heady, and I spent a long blizzard weekend drinking my way through their selection, and I saw the future of what these flavors could be. When you start to look at what is happening now,  a decade of hop varieties have begun to trickle out from the ground. Brewers started to create hop crosses—like Citra, which debuted in around 2007—and use new ingredients to create distinct beers.

How does craft beer continue to grow from here? 

There is a national evolution and international evolution, and we are at the beginning of this change. Beer styles grew up in geographic regions thanks to the water and the intellect of brewers, but with the rise of the international economy, beer styles are now moving quickly. Hops are like the marijuana industry—full of crazy strains and flavors. With hop research, we are seeing the very beginning of what is possible. It’s what comes of the ground that will determine where IPAs and craft beer goes.

There’s also research that has to be done to determine how long these flavors will last, shelf-wise. Ben Edmunds at Breakside Brewery is doing research on how to keep a juicy flavor without falling off. IPAs in particular are like fragile butterflies—they need to be consumed fresh—and because IPAs are a crowded market, you have to innovate to stand out. You can’t just brew an IPA and expect it to be good, or draw interest.

Tired Hands in Philadelphia is making a milkshake IPA, and Great Notion Brewing in Portland specializes in Northeast IPAs. Brewers are helping push tastes in different directions by researching different ways that flavors can fit together

Will IPAs always be dominant?

We are a nation of lager drinkers, and there is a rise in pilsners right now, but after twenty people come to the bar and ask for an IPA, brewers have to make one. Take Carton’s Boat beer. I talked to [owner and brewer] Augie Carton at a party, and he first called Boat a koslch because no one had called a low alcohol IPA a session IPA back then. And even when people complain that there are too many IPAs on tap, you talk to any bartender and ask what is selling, it’s IPAs.

If IPAs are king, is there another style you see bursting into the craft beer conscience?

Dry hopped sours are percolating. It doesn’t sound great, like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth, but the chemical interaction and interplays just work.

I used to love Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA, but now with all the different options availible, I haven’t had one in a while. Last month I revisited 60 Minute and I had a much different reaction—it didn’t hit me the way it used to. Is that something we’ll see, brewers tweaking their flagship recipes to fit the new craft sphere?

Legacy brewers have realized the IPA is key going forward, and they’re seeing shifts in American tastes and global tastes. It’s great to go back to beers you’ve forgotten and find out why they were elegant beers. Your palette matures and you tend to look for those big memorable flavors that used to stand out for you. But since education is so much higher these days, brewers are altering recipes to accommodate for new flavors.

Breweries adapt: New Belgium [Ranger] and Sierra Nevada [Torpedo] adds IPAs to their roster, and Sierra Nevada even comes out with a gose last year [Otra Vez]. IPAs and other styles change. A little more citrus in there, or some tropical notes. There are more than 5,000 craft breweries in the United States—you have to stay current.

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