The Beer World’s Latest Craze Is West Coast IPA? Well, Yes and NoPhotos via Unsplash, Ivan Aleksic, Drew Beamer Drink Features craft beer
For the last few years, if I’ve been writing a piece on India pale ale, it’s almost invariably been some kind of analysis of the evolution of hazy, juicy IPA, typically dovetailing into some of the existential problems that have come to define that style, in my opinion. As I’ve explained at length before, hazy IPA went from being a style where I was once extremely excited to try new releases, to almost dreading the same task today. On one level, this has been due to the cloying omnipresence of the style in brewery taprooms, and the constant flow of same-y hazy IPA releases from hyped breweries that are constrained by the consumer expectation that they put out a new IPA or two every single week. On a second, related level, I believe the average quality of these releases has suffered because of that very oversaturation, which results in new hazy IPA releases that are always trying to push the envelope to greater extremes, resulting in unpleasant sensations such as the dreaded “hop burn.” In general, I’ve rarely felt positive about the direction that IPA has been trending in the last few years, even though there are of course always stellar hazies out there.
The latest trend I’ve observed, though, is something wholly unexpected and potentially quite welcome: The reemergence of West Coast IPA as a source of excitement. Or perhaps I should be saying “beers labeled as West Coast IPA.” Because before we go full “time is a flat circle” on you, we must note that this is the two-edged nature of this latest development—we’re seeing a sudden new attention on beers that reflect the past of IPA in name, but not necessarily in style. The words “West Coast IPA” are suddenly showing up on the menus of hyped IPA producers, but the beers themselves may not remind you much of the IPA you were drinking 10 years ago.
If we’re going to make that kind of statement, though, we should probably define what was once the expectation, if you saw “West Coast IPA” as a descriptor.
A decade ago, if you saw a beer labeled as “West Coast IPA,” you could safely expect it to be a fairly dry, intensely bitter India pale ale. The designation “West Coast IPA” had arisen years earlier as a way to characterize the very hop-forward profile that had become popular in San Diego, CA and elsewhere on the coast, typified by beers such as Russian River Blind Pig IPA, Stone IPA or Green Flash’s eponymous West Coast IPA. This was in comparison to a very nebulously defined idea of “east coast IPA” as something that was supposedly more malt forward, but even so, the West Coast IPA of a decade ago would also have featured considerably more malt balance than one would expect to find in almost anything labeled IPA today. At this point—let’s say 2011 or so—you’d still find it totally normal for many of these beers to be amber in color, rather than pale gold or yellow.
This was once a perfectly normal appearance for beers marketed as “West Coast IPA.”
The 2010s, however, began a steady transformation of the style long before the popularization of hazy IPA. This is something that beer fans and even beer writers have a tendency to misconstrue—the arrival of hazy IPA wasn’t the first time that juicy, tropical flavors suddenly became the norm in IPA. That had already happened to some degree by the mid-2010s, thanks to the proliferation of the nouveau hop varietals we all now know and love—names like Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin. As a result, IPA had already been trending juicier, sweeter and more tropical fruit forward for years before hazy IPAs started venturing outside of the Northeast. Malt flavors were gradually stripped away, colors became ever lighter, and even the high level of bitterness had eased off a bit by the mid-2010s, at right about the same time that “NE IPA” started to trend. This evolution of what “West Coast IPA” implied in effect paved the way for the flavors we now associate with hazies—those new, opaque IPAs simply embraced the juicier, fruitier flavors with wild abandon, eventually chasing the trend into the realm of absurdity and self parody.
Those beer writers watching the economic side of the spectrum will of course point out that it’s not like non-hazy IPA ever left us. Most of the country’s biggest flagship IPA brands—your supermarket stalwarts such as Lagunitas IPA, Bells Two Hearted, Stone IPA, etc—are not hazy, and never have been. But in terms of style and flavor, this newest batch of “West Coast IPA” from hyped breweries won’t be reminding anyone of something like Lagunitas, or Stone. Those drier, less bombastic beers still move a lot of units in grocery stores, but they’re stylistically holdouts from an earlier era, and these new beers don’t represent nostalgia for them. Instead, these new West Coast IPAs are more like a continuation of where the style was already headed before haze became the norm.
These avant garde West Coast IPAs have been particularly noticeable in my home of Richmond, VA, a city densely packed with breweries that are nationally known for hazy IPA. Places like Triple Crossing, The Veil, Final Gravity, The Answer—at all of them, beers labeled as West Coast IPA are suddenly all the rage. Triple Crossing, one of the most consistent IPA performers in the history of Paste’s blind style tastings, has recently produced “West Coast” versions of their two flagship hazy IPAs, Falcon Smash and Clever Girl. Even The Veil, a brewery that encapsulates hazy IPA culture and hype, has not one but multiple new West Coast IPAs on tap right now, sharing space with something described as “quintuple dry-hopped quadruple IPA.” I’m not making that one up, it’s a real beer whose description also contains the adjective “gloopy,” which I never want to hear in a beer description again.
Which begs the obvious question, how do these beers taste? Do they represent a counter movement against the still-surging popularity of hazy IPA? Do they reflect consumers, or brewers, who are ready for a change in how the winds are blowing?
The answer, I feel, is that these beers are less a rebuke of hazy IPA, and more a new evolution of those flavors, back in a cleaner, less messy direction. The new era of West Coast IPAs I’ve sampled from breweries such as Triple Crossing and The Veil are crisp, and relatively dry, at least in comparison with your average juice bomb. They tend to be fairly clear, in terms of appearance. At the same time, though, they retain an overall focus on citrusy, dank or tropical flavors, in much the same mold as hazy IPA. Importantly, they all have at least a moderate charge of hop bitterness, albeit not as assertively as you likely would have expected a decade ago. In a word, they’re more balanced than the style has been in recent memory—still lacking the malt balance of ages past, yes, but now striking more of a genuine balance between bitterness/sweetness and drinkability/decadence. They’re also far easier to drink in quantity, and that’s by no means a bad thing.
Point is, I like these new beers. They’re not the “West Coast IPA” I was raised on at the tail end of the 2000s, but they do represent a welcome change of pace from yet another beer trying to be the be-all, end-all of the concept of “juiciness.” I like that when I order one, I can generally expect them to contain some degree of bitterness. I genuinely do like that they also tend to retain the bright, juicy flavors of well-executed hazy IPAs, which are especially nice when they’ve been reined in a bit. But more than anything, I like that these new West Coast IPAs don’t seem to be in danger of delivering either cloying sweetness or muddy flavors dominated by vegetal notes and the distinct impression that you’re drinking something actively corrosive. “Sore throat in a 16 oz can” was a poor place for this style to end up, and a swing back in the other direction has been overdue. Here’s hoping they stick around.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.