Lew Bryson is tired of IPAs:
Speaking as a guy who’s been preaching the beer gospel for over 30 years, I’m feeling short-changed. Damn it, I didn’t put up with the abuse of my co-workers and relatives, or spend thousands of dollars on questionable beers from brewers with six months’ experience during the buildup, just to get the opportunity to drink hoppy, hoppier and hoppiest, no matter how good those hops are! 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. There are a lot more taps at bars now than there were back in my salad days, but I happily recall places with only five taps that had more variety.
I think this case is overstated–barroom variety isn’t as monochrome as all that–but it’s true that IPAs have conquered America. But to Lew, who seems to take a slightly proprietary approach to the development of beer in the US (“We did this for you. Don’t squander it.”), I would rejoin: what did you expect?
When countries develop their beer culture well enough to begin to introduce their own styles, it inevitably leads to a narrowing in the marketplace. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the more people in a region grow to love beer, the less they love diversity. It’s not like German brewers can’t make abbey ales. They can’t sell them. The same thing is happening in the US: breweries make IPAs because Americans love love love them.
And this is a good thing! The beers Lew describes are the slow adaptation to American tastes. We started out trying to make the styles popular elsewhere. By tiny increments, the beers began to drift. US breweries were using these strangely potent (and initially derided) local hop varieties, and instead of trying to conceal them, they started to make them the focus. They adapted further by figuring out new ways of brewing with them, and further still by changing the water, grist, and yeasts to showcase them. All of this went hand in hand with the public’s embrace of these evolving hoppy ales. If you go back and look at the way German, Belgian, Czech, and British beer styles develop, you see parallel evolutions. In any country that embraces beer, you should expect to see both the creation of new styles, and a local preference for them.
Thirty years ago, it would have been unimaginable to think that the US would be the most dynamic brewing country in the world, author of a whole new chapter in beer history. We would not be able to conceive that these American inventions would be brewed in London, Prague, and Berlin. And yet here we are.
Lew’s complaint is not new, and it is often framed as a sad form of degeneration. But you almost never hear the same people complaining that the beer culture in Bamberg or Bruges or České Budějovice is bad because the choices are too few. They are routinely hailed, correctly, as paragons of beer culture. As the politicos would say, the prevalence of IPAs is a feature, not a bug.