It’s not often that you sit down to write a little essay on a very particular subject and then, five minutes into your labor, your email inbox presents you with direct confirmation of your thesis: In this case, that the trend of fruited IPAs in American craft brewing has officially reached critical mass. That happened to me, as I wrote this sentence. Sender: Dry Dock Brewing Co. in Aurora, CO. Subject line: “Dry Dock Brewing Co. releases seasonal grapefruit double IPA!” First line of email: “North Dock smells like fresh grapefruit!”
Yep, yep, a thousand times yep. Rarely has the zeitgeist of an entire trend/fad been summed up so succinctly. Later the same evening, I head to the bar and find myself more or less surrounded by various new species of fruited IPAs, boasting everything from grapefruit and pineapple to tangerine and blood orange. I order a new one from Wicked Weed called Hop Burglar, which is particularly unable to make up its mind: Both blood orange and grapefruit, and presumably a few hops in there as well. Visiting the website to read more, I note that Wicked Weed takes pains to explain that this beer has been around since 2014 … but it’s pretty easy to understand why it’s being bottled now. Fruited IPA is a thing in the current craft brewing landscape, and rarely have I ever seen so many larger regional breweries scrambling to get their own twists on a style out at the same time.
Let’s get another bit of fact out of the way, though: I don’t dislike fruited IPAs. In fact, I’ve had plenty of good and even great ones. But when any trend becomes so ubiquitous, so copied and so universal all over the entire industry, we simply have to take a step back and ask ourselves what’s driving it on so strongly. Let’s see what we can see.
Fruited IPA origins
The first thing we should note is that simply adding fruit flavors to an IPA, whether via real fruit or artificial means, is hardly a new concept in craft brewing. All the way back in 1999, Dogfish Head introduced Aprihop for the first time, their seasonal IPA with apricot puree. It was executed then in more or less the same way that fruited IPAs are being executed today, except perhaps slightly more subtly in its delivery. If Aprihop was an example of a brewery dipping a toe into the pool of this concept, then most of the modern fruited IPAs are jumping cannonballs from the high dive.
One reason, presumably, revolves around the constant evolution of hop varietals. When I was first getting into craft beer around 2007, the American hop scene was quite a lot different from how it is today. Innovation wasn’t happening at nearly the same clip, and there was a very firmly entrenched idea of what the flavors of “American hops” would represent—primarily the omnipresent notes of “citrus and pine” you’d find in the description on every single bottle of pale ale or IPA on the shelf. Classics such as Cascade and Centennial were firmly established as old guard, while newer varietals such as Simcoe and Amarillo were making waves while still emphasizing some of the same flavors—primarily resiny, grassy, citrusy. The “Great Hop Shortage” of 2008 certainly didn’t help things either, sending many brewers digging into old-school alternative varietals that were never exactly prized for their aromatic properties. I know—just getting into homebrewing at the time, I was primarily left making pale ales with hops like Willamette, Vanguard and US Fuggles.
And then came Citra, the hop that can most be credited with launching the modern tropical fruity American hop renaissance. It’s probably safe to say that Citra is the single most influential hop varietal in American brewing since Cascade, as its adoption, widespread use and eventual craze ushered in today’s era of juicy, tropical fruit-forward IPA flavors. Hot on its heels were so many others that are now popular, and with various twists on the intense citrus/tropical fruit profile—everything from the supercharged citrus blend of Falconer’s Flight to the new tropical varieties popular in single-hop usage: Mosaic, El Dorado, Galaxy, Lemondrop, Vic Secret, Calypso, etc, etc, etc. It may very well be that the surging popularity of juicier hop flavors laid the groundwork for fruitier, juicier IPAs derived less by hops and more by actual fruit. Now, all they needed was a catalyst beer, and that came along in the form of…
Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin
Ballast Point’s grapefruit-infused version of their already popular Sculpin IPA can’t be called the “ur-beer” of fruited IPAs by any means, but it certainly seems to be the single most influential example. Since its introduction in early 2013, it’s become a bona fide sensation for the brewery, leading to all the other spin-offs: Pineapple Sculpin and Habanero Sculpin in wide release, and many more small batches with everything from iced tea and blood orange to mango and coffee. In reality, it’s hard to overstate the influence of Grapefruit Sculpin, the first spin-off. It might honestly be the most influential craft beer released in the last 4-5 years, in terms of how the market reshaped itself afterward.
I want to make sure this point is understood in particular: Grapefruit Sculpin hasn’t just had a huge effect in reshaping any old beer style. We’re talking about American IPA here. American IPA, the most popular craft beer style in the country and the standard-bearer for the entire craft beer market. This style has been done so much and defined so thoroughly that if you asked an average craft beer geek to describe it, he would be able to list most of the BJCP criteria at the drop of a hat. If you asked me in 2014, I wouldn’t have thought it possible that any one beer would be able to have this kind of impact and inspire so many seemingly blatant copycats in American IPA … rather, I would have told you that the category had become too big for any one beer to affect it very much. And I would have been wrong.
Look at other craft beer styles in the last decade or so, and tell me, can you name a single beer in a single style that had this much influence? Perhaps you can cite something like Westbrook Gose for helping popularize the current conception in American brewing of what the BJCP is now calling “Contemporary Gose,” but that was a style virtually unknown in American brewing only a few years ago. It’s not hard to have an affect on such a style, but in American IPA? That’s like moving a monolith. What other established style has been turned on its head by a single beer? American stouts/coffee stouts and Founders Breakfast Stout, perhaps? American pilsners and Victory Prima Pils? Neither of those seem momentous enough to be comparable.
Regardless, we at Paste got a strong feel for this momentum shift when we hosted our first giant blind tasting of 116 American IPAs back in April, 2015. Grapefruit Sculpin was dominant in that blind field, ultimately finishing in the #3 place, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The intensity and purity of its juicy fruit character was hard to compare to anything else in the competition—in fact, if you knew it was on the table somehow, then it was hard for the tasting to be truly “blind” when you got to that beer. None of the other beers smelled quite like Grapefruit Sculpin, which naturally made us ask ourselves: “Should this beer even be included in an American IPA tasting?” Or is the fruit some kind of unfair advantage?
A little over a year later, the IPA market has morphed significantly, in what has probably been one of the most active years of growth and change for this style in the last decade. Fruited IPAs are now EVERYWHERE. They’re common enough that we’re getting them in the mail at Paste from brewery marketing departments every single week. They’re common enough that I received new year-round tangerine IPAs from both Green Flash and New Belgium on the same day back in January, and thus did a combined review/comparison. Since then, I’ve also received tangerine IPAs from the likes of Stone and Uinta in the last week alone. We are absolutely awash in IPAs made with tangerine, grapefruit, blood orange and pineapple in particular.
For what it’s worth, I still believe these IPAs need to be tasted alongside non-fruited examples, if the alternative is creating a new BJCP or GABF category for “Fruited IPA.” When we redo our massive American IPA blind-tasting and ranking in July, we’ll be welcoming all comers. It will be up to the breweries to decide what they want to enter, but I’m positive that we’ll have far, far more fruited IPAs this time than we did in April of 2015.
Who is the Fruited IPA Consumer?
Which brings us to the “why” of this style—why have these beers specifically appealed so strongly to drinkers in the last few years, and who represents the typical consumer of beers like Grapefruit Sculpin and its progeny? To do so, perhaps we should describe the sensory experience most of them represent: Sweeter, juicier IPAs with big fruit flavors and much less pronounced bitterness. And in doing so, we confront one of the universal truths of alcohol marketing: We, as a species crave sugar, but our attempts to regulate our diets and “eat healthy” instills us with guilt that drives the health-conscious away from embracing products that are openly sweet. What we apparently require instead are sweet drinks that can deliver that sugar in a more clandestine way.
That different flavor profile opens up the potential base of drinkers substantially. Suddenly there are “IPAs” out there on the rack that can appeal to those who don’t enjoy higher levels of bitterness, up until recently considered a necessary hallmark of the style. There are IPAs for those who are craving that sugar. And there are IPAs for partially untapped markets, particularly the female craft beer drinker. A beer marketer would be blind not to see the potential for these softer, juicier IPAs in appealing to women, and doing so in a way that isn’t nearly so overt and tasteless as groan-inducing single-gender concepts like “Chick Beer.” Compared to that bullshit, fruited IPAs are almost entirely egalitarian.
And then there’s the production side of things. Perhaps fruited IPAs are becoming more of a tool for unheralded breweries to produce the sort of juicy, bombastic IPAs that are currently all the rage for the beer geeks who help drive the hype machine. After all, not all of them can be a Maine Beer Co. or Alchemist, deriving mind-blowing fruit flavors via hops alone. Adding a healthy shot of grapefruit or pineapple might be seen as a shortcut for those other breweries that simply aren’t quite as skilled in using hops—one wonders if there’s any resentment among the brewers themselves over this issue. If you’ve worked hard to develop a great hops-only IPA recipe with “grapefruit notes” for 10 years, how are you going to feel when the brewpub down the street unleashes their grapefruit juice bomb that blurs the lines between IPA and radler, and everyone in the local community is falling over themselves to praise its fruit flavors?
There’s a certain level of irony here as well, when we consider the way fruited IPAs would presumably move the style subtly in the direction of those beers that we beer geeks deride with such smugness. We rightly mock the likes of Anheuser Busch for abominations with names like “Bud Light Lime” while our IPAs slowly move in the same direction. Sure, the craft example is more likely to be made with actual lime (there’s a lemon-lime IPA in the Paste fridge as I type this), but that doesn’t necessarily absolve us from having embraced this type of gimmickry while shit-talking another. In the future, one can only assume that the gap between Big Beer’s wine cooler-esque brews and the most over-the-top examples of fruited IPAs will only continue to shrink. We should be cognizant of this if we’re regularly deriding the latest from Anheuser while chugging an IPA that tastes like a pineapple Lifesaver.
Grapefruit and Lemon-Lime variants of King of Hop from Starr Hill
At the very least, though, we should also keep in mind that non-fruit IPAs aren’t going anywhere. Flavor profiles with descriptions like “bitter, resinous and piney, with a crystal malt backbone” will likely always be popular within American IPA as a style, even as fruited variants flood the shelves in the meantime. What’s gone away is the days when one would automatically associate that particular palette of flavors with the phrase “American IPA.” What we have today is a more nebulous, undefined marketplace, one where there are far too many variations to associate the name of the style with any one profile. Put simply, “IPA” means a whole hell of a lot of different things to different people in 2016. Our only choices are to embrace the possibilities, or be left behind.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he still enjoys Grapefruit Sculpin. You can follow him on Twitter.