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What the Hell Happened to the West Coast IPA?

The West Coast-style IPA used to be America’s favorite craft beer.

west coast ipa gear patrol lead full
Chase Pellerin

Craft beer drinkers have a short memory, so perhaps only a handful would remember when the West Coast-style IPA ruled America.

The style — known for its pale, bright appearance, high bitterness and strong hop aroma — had a modest upbringing, born from the increasingly hoppy pale ales of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Then, spurred by friendly rivalries among San Diego breweries during the mid-2000s (Green Flash Brewing Co., Stone Brewing Co., Ballast Point Brewing Company), it grew into a brewing tradition that ushered American beer onto the world’s stage.

Shame, then, that few beer drinkers even noticed it dying.

When Green Flash’s flagship beer, West Coast IPA, first debuted in 2005, there were 102 entries in the American-style IPA category at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competition, the “big dance” of American brewing. In 2015, this number grew to a record-breaking 336.

But in 2018, just three short years later, entries for the American-style IPA actually shrank, while the festival’s newest category, the Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale (also referred to as New England-style IPA or Northeast IPA) garnered 391 entries.

So how was America’s favorite beer unseated in a few short years?

“Heady Topper seemed like the first [New England-style IPA] to garner success, with a beer that tasted like carbonated cotton candy and looked like orange juice,” said Colby Chandler, VP Specialty Brewer at Ballast Point. What started as a word-of-mouth phenomenon out of Stowe, Vermont, turned into a nation-wide movement.

The hazy IPAs secret weapon was its stark contrast to the bitter IPAs that San Diego had popularized. “Bitterness is a sensation, that your brain needs to learn is not a threat. It’s your self-defense against eating things you shouldn’t and most people don’t get used to right away,” said Chandler, who was one of the creators of Ballast Point’s famous Sculpin IPA. “The New England-style IPA is hop-forward in aroma and flavor but lacks bitterness. Combined with the silky body, it’s a great introductory style for someone just getting into full-flavored beers.”

Unlike its west coast brethren, hazy IPAs are made with a process known as dry hopping (whereby hops are added to already-fermented wort) to impart aroma and tropical flavors without bitterness. However, this is a double-edged sword, as these flavors fall off so quickly that wide distribution is largely impossible and brewers must urge drinkers to consume the beer immediately to preserve freshness. A common sight of the 2019 beer scene is a line of fans wrapped around the block, waiting to buy out their brewers entire stock of hazy IPAs.

This is a huge boon to brewers, as a beer can be canned the night before a huge release and sell out the following morning. “Needing to get beers out quick is never a good thing for beer quality, but when you don’t have to properly finish a beer (i.e. just leave it unfined, unfiltered, unfinished, or just plain young) that becomes attractive to a brand new brewery that needs cash flow,” said Jeff Bagby, who worked at Pizza Port during the San Diego haze craze and now runs Bagby Brewing. “Add to that the price that breweries are getting for these beers and you have something that many breweries cannot resist brewing.”

The young-but-easy-to-love style comes with constant innovation. Lactose? Toss it in. Fruit? Sure. Pair this with collaborations between brewers to produce ultra limited beers adorned with provocative, sometimes stellar artwork, and hazy IPAs satisfy that itch to collect carried over from childhood.

“You have a cool name with creatively different artwork on it that is somehow ‘limited’ even if only in perception and not reality. This equals an almost must-have mindset for some people,” said Bagby. “A while back, my wife heard a woman gushing about how much she loved hazy IPA. My wife asked her what she liked about them and the woman couldn’t answer. I believe she said, ‘I don’t know, I just like them.’ Point being, this craze is definitely not just about the beer.”

And today, with the help of Instagram and Twitter, innovation occurs in weeks, not years, as brewers are always attempting to one-up each other. “The shiny-new-object phenomenon is a real thing,” said Josh Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course and Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Craft Beer. “Hazy IPAs were the latest models, West Coast IPAs yesterday’s news.”

As quickly as brewers can make new styles, they become part of brewing ethos. Pastry stouts. Fruited spontaneously fermented ales. Sour IPAs. These all rose in the same tide that brought West Coast IPAs to the east coast, where they evolved from bitter and clear to soft and hazy.

The nail in the coffin for the West Coast IPAs battle with the hazy IPA was the incredible series of breweries that opened and specialized in the style. There’s Tree House (opened in 2011), Monkish (2012), Trillium (2013), Other Half (2014), Weldworks (2015) and The Veil (2016). Beers produced at these breweries have become status symbols, with pop art labels that added to the collectibility fixation of fans; the culture is no longer defined by what you find on the shelf, but how far you are willing to travel to buy your beer.

Hop farmers began breeding juicer hops varieties to match the soft, tropical flavors of a hazy IPA. Brewers continued pushing beer farther from West Coast bitterness, even adding fruit and milk sugar to make beer that started resembling after-dinner desserts, far from the classic West Coast IPA and its “bold, balanced hop character, with an ABV that sits you down and makes you think” as David Walker, co-owner of Firestone Walker, put it.

But craft beer, like always, is in flux. For instance, Brut IPAs — made with the enzyme amyloglucosidase to impart bone-dry flavors — are popping up at taprooms across the country. They might not have the sex appeal of hazy IPAs, but the industry appears to be aging beyond grammar school soccer, with everyone chasing the same ball.

“Hazy IPAs are just starting to percolate through the mainstream,” said Bernstein. “They’re here to stay, at least for today. Tomorrow? Who knows. Styles are evolving faster than at any point in history.”

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