Of the top 10 beers sold every month at Dan Kelly’s Pub and the two Republic locations in Minneapolis, five are the same style. They’re not light beers—the category that accounts for about half of all beer sold in the United States—but rather IPAs from local and regional craft breweries. “IPAs do really well for us,” says Middlewest Restaurant Group co-owner Matty O’Reilly, whose company operates all three venues in Minneapolis’ Downtown and Uptown areas.
Arik Zonski, owner of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Jubilation Wine & Spirits, has also observed IPA’s popularity. “It’s been one of the hottest beer styles in our store for eight to 10 years,” he says. In fact, the IPA segment comprises up to 40 percent of his store’s craft beer sales. “I don’t see it slowing down,” Zonski adds.
At BevMo—a chain of 157 stores in California, Arizona and Washington—IPA sales are outpacing overall craft beer sales. “As IPAs continue to grow, we will give them more space,” says Brian Bowden, vice president of spirits, beer, tobacco and beverages. BevMo lists more than 250 different IPAs already, though not all brands are offered in every store.
IPAs are now the darling of the craft beer segment. According to IRI data, sales of craft IPAs in chains and convenience stores surged 48 percent in 2014 to $531 million, significantly outpacing craft beer’s 21-percent gain. Volume sales rose at a similar rate, and IPA has emerged as the top style among craft beers, accounting for some 23 percent of the segment.
“IPA has become the buzzword of the craft beer industry,” says Joe Menetre, vice president of sales at New Belgium Brewing Co. He notes that the segment attracts both seasoned beer drinkers and new consumers who are becoming more open and accustomed to the hoppy brews.
Karen Hamilton, regional marketing manager at Lagunitas Brewing Co., agrees. “Craft beer is for an adventurous palate,” she says. “People enjoy the hoppiness of IPAs.”
While there are hundreds of IPAs now available, several labels have emerged as category leaders. Lagunitas IPA and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Torpedo IPA are among the top-sellers. Launched in 2009, Torpedo was one of the first IPAs to be distributed nationally, says Sierra Nevada director of sales and marketing Joe Whitney. Today, the Chico, California–based company produces at least six IPAs, including the recently launched Hop Hunter, which features oil from wet hops that are steam-distilled minutes after harvest.
Lagunitas IPA, meanwhile, debuted 20 years ago, and Hamilton notes the brand was one of the first IPAs to be packaged in bottles. Initially, the brew was considered one of those “crazy beers,” she says, but by today’s standards it’s no longer thought of as extreme. Petaluma, California–based Lagunitas distributes its brews—which also include Maximus and DayTime IPAs—in about 40 states.
Jim Koch, founder of The Boston Beer Co., notes that his brewery has produced several different IPAs over the past 15 years. Released in 2014 and already one of the category leaders, Rebel IPA is designed as a West Coast–style IPA. “It has big citrus and grapefruit aromas, along with piney and resinous notes that come through in both the flavor and aroma,” Koch says. “We didn’t want to brew an overwhelmingly bitter IPA, but rather one that’s hoppy, drinkable and refreshing.” Earlier this year, Boston Beer launched the double IPA Rebel Rouser and the session IPA Rebel Rider. New Belgium’s Ranger IPA, meanwhile, was introduced six years ago and has since been joined by Rampant Imperial IPA and Slow Ride Session IPA.
Karmen Olson, brand manager at Craft Brew Alliance’s Redhook Brewery, describes the brand’s Long Hammer IPA as “approachable and easy-drinking.” As a result, the brew is getting attention from mainstream domestic beer drinkers who are looking to cross over to crafts. According to Olson, Long Hammer’s biggest market is Seattle, but it’s seeing the fastest growth in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Growing consumer interest in traditional and emerging hops varieties is contributing to the excitement in IPAs, with many labels featuring a blend of several different strains. “Drinker awareness of hops as the spice in beer that imparts flavor and aroma has grown tremendously,” Boston Beer’s Koch says. The use of copious amounts of hops and the inclusion of new hops variations is yielding more diversity in IPAs than ever before. Sierra Nevada’s Whitney notes that the range of hops options available to brewers today is similar to the many grape varietals available to winemakers.
Brewers are also increasingly opting to market more sessionable IPAs than the “hop bombs” that have popularized the category in recent years. Boston Beer’s 4.5-percent alcohol-by-volume (abv) Rebel Rider, which has 45 International Bittering Units (IBUs), and New Belgium’s 4.5-percent abv Slow Ride, with 40 IBUs, were introduced earlier this year. Whitney explains that consumers are more likely to drink multiple servings of sessionable IPAs than offerings with higher alcohol content.
While several years ago IPAs were largely a play to craft beer aficionados or so-called “hop heads,” marketers and retailers report that today the consumer has broadened. Unlike previous generations, new craft beer consumers between the ages of 22 and 25 are flocking to IPAs. “They’re fast-forwarding the process,” Whitney explains, noting an immediate move toward full-bodied, higher-gravity bitter brews, rather than starting with lighter styles. IPA drinkers tend to be more adventurous. “They might have their favorite IPA, but they’re willing to try different ones,” says Middlewest’s O’Reilly.
With consumer interest in IPAs so high, on- and off-premise retailers are taking every opportunity to promote the category. An expanding number of retailers are setting their beer shelves by style—meaning that different IPA brands are merchandised together in a section rather than with other offerings from the same brewery. Bowden says BevMo is in the midst of arranging its beer shelves this way, and within the IPA section, beers are often subdivided by region of origin. The chain is also allocating more space to IPAs, generally priced at $8 and up a six-pack, and offering craft beer–focused promotions, such as the recent deal on a 12-pack of bottles of Lagunitas IPA for $13.99.
Buehler’s Fresh Foods, a chain of 15 grocery stores in Ohio, is also considering a reorganization of its beer shelves by style, according to director of beer, wine and liquor Ron James. The grocer offers in-store tastings of IPAs and other styles at its three locations with growler stations, where three of eight draft brews are typically IPAs. Buehler’s generally prices IPAs at $8.99 a six-pack.
Many beer-focused on-premise operators are hosting creative IPA-themed events and promotions. Sierra Nevada’s Whitney points to wet-hop IPA festivals or events that showcase particular hops varietals. New Belgium’s Menetre adds that many beer menus now organize IPA offerings by featured hops style. The Beer Market, which has five locations in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York, promotes IPAs via tap takeovers, customer education events and brewmaster visits. Co-owner Greg Goodrich notes that monthly specials, including “beer of the month” and “flight of the month” offerings, often highlight the style. The Beer Market’s draft beer prices start at $4 a 16-ounce pour.
Some retailers believe that IPAs need little in the way of promotional support these days. “IPAs sell themselves,” says O’Reilly from Middlewest, which prices draft brews at $5 a pint or more. “We don’t have to force them down our customers’ throats.”
Marketers of IPAs say that while the category is thriving now, beer retailers and bar operators can drive sales even further by offering multiple draft lines to include several IPAs. “With the great variance in IPAs now, one is not enough,” Menetre says. Boston Beer’s Koch suggests that on- and off-premise operators offer consumers a sample of the beer before they purchase it. “The best way to promote any craft beer is by allowing them to taste the freshest beer possible,” he says. “Sampling gives retailers an opportunity to introduce new beer styles to drinkers.”
There’s no question that IPAs are one of the hottest beer segments around. But there’s some debate among beer marketers and retailers about whether that will remain the case for the long term. Menetre doesn’t expect IPAs will get knocked off their perch anytime soon. “More people are coming into craft and hearing about IPAs,” he says. “The hop thing is here to stay.”
Others, however, point to the cyclical nature of beer styles and consumer preferences. “The pendulum swung in favor of big, hoppy beers in the past, and we’re seeing it swing back toward lower alcohol, more approachable styles now,” Redhook’s Olson says. James at Buehler’s also expects that in time IPA growth will moderate and that the segment will even be perceived as mainstream, particularly if large beer marketers opt to hop on the IPA train.