Tyranny of the IPA

Sam Masotto, owner of Bonn Place Brewing Co. in Bethlehem, says the India pale ale craze is overdone.

Customers at Bonn Place Brewing Co. on Bethlehem’s south side sometimes ask brewer Sam Masotto why he hates hops.

They get that impression because he refuses to stuff his beer menu with varieties of India pale ale, a hop-heavy beer style that only seems to be growing more popular, leading instead with an ordinary bitter, a not-very-bitter style of English beer that is relatively rare in American taprooms.

For the record, Masotto, who opened his small brewery last summer, said he loves hops, plant buds used to offset the sweetness of malt, but he thinks the hop craze in IPAs has gone too far.

Ryan Kelly stirs the ingredients during the brewing process at Bonn Place Brewing Co. in Bethlehem.

“You can sell anything as an IPA. I can double dry-hop a beer and sell it twice as fast if I call it an IPA, but to me, it’s not an IPA, so I’m not going to call it that,” Masotto said in an interview this week, referring to a brewing technique that supercharges hop flavors.

India pale ales, which historically got an extra dose of hops as a preservative to withstand shipping to India from Great Britain, reign supreme among beer consumers who avoid the biggest brands such as Budweiser, Miller, and all of their cousins. The style accounted for nearly 30 percent of the market during the 52 weeks ending May 14, according to IRI, a Chicago-based research firm.

But that figure for packaged beer understates the power of IPAs because it does not include beer sold in the taprooms of small breweries, which often narrow their beer lists over time to focus more on IPAs and other hoppy beers in order to stay relevant and sell beer more quickly.

“You’re touching on a subject that a lot of people are scratching their heads about,” said William Reed, co-owner of the Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda’s and cocreator of the Hammer of Glory relay, which opens Philly Beer Week on Thursday.

Reed said that a year or two ago, he would have explained the IPA phenomenon as a consumer reaction to the taste of flavorful beer for the first time: “Some hop flavor is good. How about a whole lot of hop flavor?”

Now, Reed sees something different, consumers with an allegiance to IPAs as if they were a sports team. “It seems almost like a brand identity, as much as an actual flavor,” he said.

The menu at Bonn Place Brewing Co. in Bethlehem, Pa.

Brewers complain about the power of IPAs. “Everybody is sort of tired of it,” Reed said. “At the same time, what are you going to do? If that’s what sells out of your tanks, that’s the next beer you’re going to brew.”

Forest & Main Brewing Co. in Ambler developed a reputation for classic English ordinary bitters, but has felt the IPA pressure.

“We always have those beers, but they turn over so much slower,” said Jared Olson, co-owner of Forest & Main. “We’ll kick a batch of IPA in a week, whereas one of those ordinary bitters might take two months sometimes.”

Kristy Morley of Norristown likes some IPAs with food, but most are too hoppy and bitter for her. “They are just way too over the top most of the time,” she said.

“My real frustration, though, is I feel like IPAs are invading the other styles that small breweries are making,” said Morley, who works as a naturalist for a local watershed association, “They are not marketing a particular beer as an IPA, but it’s so hoppy and so bitter that it might as well be an IPA.”

This is particularly true of pilsners, whose growing popularity analysts point to as a sign of diversification in beer tastes. Many of the new pilsners taste nothing like traditional German or Czech pilsners.

“We’re guilty of that,” said Mike Wambolt, a partner in Crime & Punishment Brewing Co. in Philadelphia’s Brewerytown neighborhood.

“We just made a Keller Pilsner that we’re going to dry hop to high heaven because we know that it will sell better and get better ratings, but if we were to tap a nice classic pilsner it would hurt our ratings.” Wambolt said. “You have to have this give and take with types of beers and how you bastardize the styles.”

Ratings on beer apps such as Untapped matter because they help attract customers, but there’s another dimension to mania for hops.

“What the brewers are trying to do is maintain some kind of creative control, being innovative, while making something that they know is going to sell,” said Masotto, who admits he plays loose with styles.

“As a brewer I like to have fun with beer,” he said. “I’m not going to just do all true to style.”