The Great Hop Debate

The Craft Beer Community is in Crisis

Hop Tattoo

Photo stolen from Google, who probably stole it themselves anyway

Is that a catchy enough headline? A similar exaggeration is what caused this whole debate in the first place, though it had been picking up steam for a while before the recent boil-over.

A lot of people, myself included, have been making a bit of a stink about IPAs (my favourite beer style, incidentally), with the following central argument:

The IPA is now the most popular style of beer after pale lager, and more successful than any other craft beer style. This is, in some ways, unfortunate, because a lot of people don’t like hop-centric beers. They’re polarizing.

That’s from an article I wrote for The Windsor Independent which more or less covers the same ground as Finding Beer Balance. A few days after submitting the article, Slate published the now-infamous, unfortunate-titled “Against Hoppy Beer.” The first thing I noticed was that the subtitle, “The craft beer industry’s love affair with hops is alienating people who don’t like bitter brews,” made the same point as my article.

I can’t say that I was surprised at the hostile reaction to the Slate article. It wasn’t presenting a new idea – people have been irked by the popularity of IPAs for so long that BrewDog has been poking at the issue since 2011 with their “IPA is Dead” series of single-hopped beers. But in a beer culture where putting the word “hop” in the name guarantees a sales advantage, where IPAs are, by a significant margin, the most popular beer style other than what is often laughingly called pilsener, the suggestion that there might be negative side-effect to the status quo has really hit a nerve.

Here’s my summary of the debate:

Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer. – Adrienne So, “Against Hoppy Beer”, Slate

If you look around you and all you see are ultra hoppy triple IPAs and imperialized whatevers, you’re very deep in the beer geek bubble. – Jeff Alworth, “Hops are Not a Problem”, Beervana

Someone is, yet again, telling me why I should, or why I should not drink one beer over another—be it hop-bombs of craft versus krafty, or whatever. – Craig, “In Defense of the Hop Bomb (It’s Not What You Think)”, DrinkDrank

And finally the voice of reason:

Here we have in this short (Slate) article a suggestion that the marketing of craft beer might focus on diversity and shift away from the attention grabbing hop bomb. Just a point of view. One not as clearly made as it might have been but one that we should have made more often. What is all the fuss? – Alan McLeod, “Selective Reading from Some Article in Slate”, A Good Beer Blog

In offering my two cents, I have to respectfully disagree with Jeff, quoted above, and suggest that it’s quite the opposite – I think that you have to be fairly deep in the beer geek bubble not to only see IPAs, hop bombs and imperialised whatevers. Hoppy beers and extreme beers often leap out from the shelf, from a marketing standpoint. They’re the ones most often promoted by producers, retailers and drinkers in kind as representative of craft beer. In most places, picking out any craft beer at random will most likely land you with something hoppy, and I can fully understand why it would take someone unfamiliar with craft beer a while to learn that there’s more to it than just hops.

And before you try deny that IPAs are dominating the industry (which I’ve heard quite a bit), Jordan from St. John’s Wort has thankfully crunched the numbers for us. The numbers show that, at this point, IPAs really do dominate, and they continue to grow faster than any other segment. The numbers are LCBO-specific, but they represent a larger trend in North American beer culture.

Jordon’s take on the issue:

There are some pretty significant downsides to this. First of all, it’s just massively unsustainable. Secondly, it means that craft brewers are largely competing for the market segment that defines their expansion. Thirdly, the problem isn’t going away. I can think of at least three new pale ales and IPAs hitting the market next month.

He goes on to suggest that diversifying is the way to go, the same suggestion made by Adrienne So in the article which infuriated so many craft beer enthusiasts, as in the following dramatization:

Beer snob: Diversify! Bah! There’s plenty of selection if you don’t like hoppy beers! I don’t know of a single brewery that makes only IPAs!

Me: You’re right! One of my favourite breweries (Dunham, Quebec) makes several alternatives to IPAs! Check out their selection: APA, English IPA, Belgian IPA, Black IPA, Belgian Wit, Leo’s Early Breakfast IPA, Imperial Black IPA, Imperial IPA, Raspberry Saison, Rye ESB, India Cream Ale, Double Dose West Coast IPA. (This beer list is not made up.)

While most breweries continue to make twice as many different IPAs as all other styles combined, we’re going to keep seeing a lot of really amazing IPAs. But what if all the work and passion that has gone into making these exceptional hoppy beers had gone into making a different style instead? Would IPAs still be my favourite style, or do I only prefer them because other styles are getting the short end of the stick in a culture where it sometimes seems like it’s not about making the best beer, but about showing off our hops?

Sometimes I wonder.


5 thoughts on “The Great Hop Debate

  1. Ends up being more like seven or eight pale ales or IPAs in Ontario this month. Moosehead has a new offering coming. At the same time, there’s a debate on about the freshness of the IPAs now that there are options on the shelves. Ontario’s not a great example because the limited distribution system worked for a smaller craft beer market and the growing pains that would inevitably result from privatization are not factored into anyone’s reckoning on the subject.

  2. I agree. While I do enjoy a tasty IPA every now and then, there are so many “flagship” IPAs out or coming out that it’s hard to see through the hop haze. If everyone’s best efforts are being put into one style, not only will there be less made of other styles but less care and attention put into making those as exciting as the beer that you HAVE to make your name on.

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