India pale ales (IPAs) perform so well at Lincoln Liquors in Massachusetts that the six-unit chain has even collaborated on its own proprietary variants with local breweries. “IPAs dominate the craft beer space,” says beer manager Sean Queenan. “People love them.” In addition to locally produced Mighty Squirrel’s Cloud Candy New England IPA ($14 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans) and Fiddlehead IPA ($15), fast sellers at Lincoln Liquors include Benevolent Ricktator ($14)—named for store owner Rick Aronovitz—and Drinkin Lincoln ($16), produced specially for the chain by RiverWalk Brewing and Springdale Beer Co., respectively.
Unquestionably, IPAs continue to thrive on beer shelves, and not even a pandemic could knock the style from its position at the top craft beer segment. According to IRI, for the calendar year ending December 27, 2020, volume sales of craft IPAs in multi-outlet retail stores surged 20%, while total craft beer volume grew 13%. Bart Watson, economist at the Brewers Association (BA), notes that while 2020 trends were an anomaly as craft beer and IPAs typically over index in the on-premise, IPAs’ share of craft beer still stands at nearly 40% overall.
Indeed, craft brewers themselves acknowledge that IPAs have emerged as the face of craft beer. “IPA is the engine that drives craft,” says Joe Whitney, chief commercial officer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. “Its incredible popularity has now spilled over from trendy bars, natural food stores, and grocery to every retail channel and non-traditional craft channel.” IPAs in convenience stores are growing at a 37% rate this year, he adds. Jeff O’Neil, founder of New York’s Industrial Arts Brewing Co. says, “Rather than consumers just asking for a beer, today they ask for an IPA.”
But increasingly, any old IPA won’t do. Today, the style is made up of numerous subsets, including West Coast, East Coast, hazy, session, double, triple, imperial, white, black, and more. “The style starts as a unique expression of hops and then the brewer’s art takes it in whatever direction that inspires,” Whitney says of the explosion in IPA expressions. Paige Guzman, CMO at Lagunitas Brewing, notes that the emergence of hazy and sessionable IPAs has attracted a wider consumer base. “Historically, IPAs were associated with beer snobs,” she says, but products like Lagunitas Hazy Wonder and other lower abv IPAs are beginning to appeal to more traditional beer consumers.
Hazy IPAs are particularly popular among craft beer drinkers. According to Guzman, consumers drank more than twice the amount of hazy beer in 2020 than they did in 2019. “Hazy IPAs appeal to a large group who enjoy their refreshment and who may find West Coast and triple IPAs too hoppy,” says Richard Williams, beer, wine, and spirits buyer at Oliver’s Markets, a four-unit grocery chain in southern California. O’Neil of Industrial Arts—where Wrench IPA accounts for half of the brewery’s sales—attributes some of the popularity of hazy IPAs to their photogenic attributes. “It’s all about the Instagram post,” he says. “Hazy IPAs look like a glass of juice.”
The proliferation of IPA styles is expected to continue, marketers say. “There are no signs of the haze craze stopping,” Whitney says. “As long as there are people who have wanderlust, there will continue to be experimentation and evolution within the IPA style.”
Leading Brands Gain
Lagunitas IPA is the category’s top seller. The brand posted a 1.8% gain in volume last year to 22.5 million (2.25-gallon) cases, according to Impact Databank. First brewed in 1995, Lagunitas IPA benefitted from consumers’ penchant during the pandemic to support well-known brands at retail, rather than going “treasure hunting,” Guzman says. However, she notes that the brand has “lived and thrived in bars and restaurants, and we see a huge opportunity to continue our growth as on-premise accounts reopen throughout the country.” Other IPAs from Lagunitas include the high-octane Maximus and sessionable DayTime.
Founders Brewing’s All Day IPA, another category leader, registered a 1.1% increase to 4.7 million cases last year. Chief sales officer Mark Hegedus notes that while the sessionable IPA did very well at retail, driven by its iconic 15-pack of 12-ounce cans, the on-premise shutdowns still hurt. “The on-premise closures were a tough headwind on total volume,” he says. Hegedus adds that Founders’ Centennial IPA outperformed the segment last year while Unraveled Juicy IPA, launched in 2020, is receiving a strong response.
IPAs from established craft breweries, like Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing IPA, are also seeing dramatic increases in the wake of the pandemic. According to Impact Databank, sales of Hazy Little Thing skyrocketed 40% last year to four million cases. “Hazy Little Thing was designed to be a beer that everyone looking for a great flavor experience can enjoy, with its hops character easy on the palette,” says Whitney. “The pandemic didn’t really impact Hazy Little Thing; it just shifted consumption from on-premise to off-premise.” The brand has been so popular that it’s spawned its own franchise, including Wild Little Thing sour ale and Big Little Thing imperial IPA. New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger brand has also been surging, driven by its imperial IPA expression, which jumped 48% last year. Senior brand manager Dave Knospe says that while the high-abv variant is hardly an entry beer, it has attracted new consumers due to a value positioning and focus on c-stores. Voodoo Imperial is often line priced with other New Belgium brands despite its higher abv. Voodoo Ranger Hoppy Packs—12-pack variety packs of 12-ounce cans designed for grocery, mass and club channels—have also been well received, Knospe adds.
Cigar City’s Jai Alai IPA is another category leader. According to brand director Maria Grieshaber, the Tampa brewery has been a pioneer in producing IPAs with tempered bitterness and tropical hop qualities, with Jai Alai first introduced 12 years ago. She notes that an upcoming ad campaign to run through the fall will look “to convert IPA drinkers who aren’t routinely making Jai Alai their ‘go-to’ IPA.”
IPAs are key traffic and sales drivers for beer retailers. “They maintain the No. 1 position in popularity,” says Williams from Oliver’s Markets, which stocks more than 170 IPAs ($7-$22 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans or 6-pack of 12-ounce cans). Among brands, top sellers at the California chain include Russian River’s Pliny the Elder ($6 a 500-ml. bottle) and Lagunitas IPA ($10 a 6-pack of 12-ounce bottles). Freshness is particularly important for IPAs, the retailer says, and many customers “check the dates to make sure they’re fresh.” A constantly rotated selection also builds sales, he adds.
With the proliferation of IPA substyles in recent years, the typical IPA consumer has broadened in scope, retailers and brewers say. “The IPA consumer today is more mainstream than in the past,” remarks Dustin Zoeller, assistant manager at Speakeasy Liquors, with three locations in southern Illinois. Some IPA drinkers are brand loyal, Zoeller notes, while others “like to try different IPAs and sub-styles.” Speakeasy stocks about 25 different IPAs, generally priced at $10-$20 a 6-pack.
Industrial Arts’ O’Neil, meanwhile, notes that with the appearance of mango, peach, pear, lemon, and lime notes in IPAs in recent years, the brews are more accessible. “While in the past, the stereotypical male was the consumer, with today’s less aggressive bitterness, women have been coming into IPAs,” he says. Indeed, Knospe adds that in some cases, “IPAs are now the entry point for craft beer due to the lower alcohol content and hazy offerings. With so many substyles, IPAs have brought consumers into craft.”
IPA’s most beloved feature—its freshness—is also its biggest challenge for retailers. “It’s ironic that IPAs today don’t have a long lifespan considering they were first brewed to ensure preservation,” says Zoeller. “I like to find new products that excite but not so much that they go out of code. The trick is to find the right balance and to accommodate everyone.” Williams of Oliver’s Markets adds that managing refrigerator space for the ever-increasing number of IPAs requiring it can be difficult. “Cold storage is always a challenge in retail settings,” he remarks.
To keep the IPA momentum going, Sierra Nevada’s Whitney suggests that retailers offer a wide assortment. “IPA consumers like to explore and experiment,” he says. “With the wide variation of styles and offerings in the IPA category, carrying just a few is unlikely to satisfy the exploratory consumer.” And for restaurant operators, he points to food pairings as a sure-fire way to build sales. “IPAs pair well with bold and spicy foods,” he notes.
Brewers are bullish that with the reopening of on-premise venues, the IPA boom will last through this year and beyond. “We’re optimistic that the resurgence of the on-premise channel will see more consumers enjoying a craft IPA this year, both in and out of home,” says Founders’ Hegedus. Whitney projects that the style will soon reach a 45% market share.
With innovation propelling the category, IPAs have emerged as an enduring style. “Since IPAs don’t have to follow a set of rules, the possibilities are endless,” says Darcey Harraka, national chain accounts manager at Cigar City. Others, like Speakeasy’s Zoeller, agree. “India pale ale is a remarkable style,” he says. “IPAs and the innovation behind them aren’t going anywhere.”