Reporter’s Notebook: Redefining the IPA

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What do you do in a crowded marketplace, where all your competitors look like you?

Where what was once extreme is now mundane? Where, if you don’t act, you’ll get left behind?

It’s one of those “put up, or shut up” situations that can help define a brand and even a company. For as fickle as consumers might be, it’s still a business’ responsibility to find ways to innovate and stay on top of their game.

All this helped drive my latest piece for All About Beer, which you can now read online: “Redefining the IPA.”

“If you think about any broad category, the biggest question a savvy brand marketer has to ask is whether a category is driven by an objective feature or the subjective attitudes of the consumer,” said Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “When it’s subjective, you have to innovate to keep up with what’s driven by consumers.”

Which is what we’ve seen from breweries in recent months as they try to stay ahead of the crowded IPA market. Or, in the case of my story, catch back up.

Two big examples – New Holland Brewing Co. and Stone Brewing Co. – decided to alter flagship beers that hadn’t been touched in almost 20 years. “Hoppy” and “bitter” may have been weird signifiers for beer back in the 1990s, but it’s what drinkers want these days. Most important, the shelf space once dominated by these companies is now chock full of other IPA options that are finding new flavors or pushing new boundaries.

ipa brands in supermarkets

“With a flagship brand like this that’s helped define our brewery, making a change isn’t without concern,” said Fred Bueltmann, vice president of sales and marketing at New Holland, talking about their Mad Hatter IPA. “But we saw in some instances where Mad Hatter might get overlooked for more dramatic examples of the style. The marketplace is indicating there would be benefit for a change and our group instinctively started looking at each other asking, ‘what do you think?’”

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Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0 label, with a new credo. Click to enlarge, underlining mine.

As I mention in the All About Beer story, Stone Brewing’s interest in changing Stone Ruination IPA is clear to see – it’s right on the label: “…the desire to go beyond bracing bitterness.”

To be clear, they’re not alone. As June’s hop acreage report suggests, specialty hops to boost aroma and add new flavors are on the rise. These are aspects of a beer people want, let alone the most popular craft beer style on the market. You see that reflected in Ruination Double IPA 2.0, which added Nugget, Simcoe and Azacca hops on top of Centennial and Citra, which get plenty of attention as well.

“The overriding factor was the fact that we recognized that craft beer fans are changing,” said Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone Brewing. “What was extreme even 10 years ago is fairly common and routine now.”

Which echoed this comment by Rucker, who told me: “This is one of those classic dilemmas of over time, you have to innovate to stay modern.”

For the full story, with lots of details about the changing IPA market and different context from these people and others, check out my story on All About Beer.

Related reading: If You Drink It, They Will Grow: A Changing Landscape for Hops

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac


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