The IPA has become so ubiquitous at bars that it’s easy to forget there was a time not long ago when you were far more likely to encounter tap lists made primarily of styles like porters, stouts, wheats or brown ales. As the Brewers Association points out, “In IRI scan data, IPAs accounted for less than 8 percent of the craft category in 2008…. Today they are 27.4 percent”—more than a 200 percent increase. With the IPA seeing such massive growth, everyone from beer snobs trying to be ahead of the new trends to brewers looking to cash in on the next big thing are constantly on the lookout for which beer style might become “the next IPA.”
Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, recently wrote specifically on this topic, and though he’s dubious of another IPA-like boom, he thinks a couple of segments have better potential than others: blonde/kolsch/golden ales and sours/goses.
His speculation on golden ales comes in part from data that sales of the broad style are up 60 percent so far this year. He also discusses how the huge growth in session IPAs proves that beer lovers are on the lookout for more easy-drinking beers. Meanwhile, these lighter brews could be good for “attracting light lager drinkers into the category.” However, one problem he doesn’t mention is that goldens really tend to lack that “wow” factor. Saying blondes are the next big thing in beer isn’t that far from saying vanilla is the next big thing in ice cream. Without some sort of unforeseen innovation, I’d agree with Watson’s original point that there’s no “next IPA” here.
Sours, on the other hand, are a much more intriguing possibility. They certainly can have the “wow” factor; in fact, that exact word is often used the first time someone tries one with a big, funky, pucker-worthy flavor. But taste aside, Watson finds a number of technical reasons why sours may never have their day. “They can be difficult to make in large quantities, the startup costs are high for many breweries…and they tend to have higher price points,” he writes. Within the sour category, he specifically singles out gose as an interesting opportunity. The slightly tangy, slightly salty beer has seen a serious uptick in Google searches recently. Interest doesn’t always translate to sales, however, and sours—though amazing, in my book—suffer from another problem IPAs never had: outside competition. Hops are an ingredient unique to beer, and ramping them up in IPAs lets that flavor fly. Sours get their interesting flavors primarily from yeast, and people can find similar complexity and variation from other fermented beverages like wine.
In the end, it’s that exploration of hops that really drove IPAs to the top of the craft beer mountain. And though hopped sodas and hopped ciders continue to hit shelves, the IPA features hops in a way no other beverage really can. That’s why I probably most agree with Watson when he says, “Because of all these new hoppy dimensions, I often respond to ‘what is the next IPA,’ with ‘IPAs.’”