What started out as a brewer’s act of necessity more than 200 years ago has emerged as one of the primary driving forces in the booming and experimental craft brewing industry we see today.
By now we should all the know the story of the development of the first English IPAs. Sailing around the world on missions of conquest and Imperialistic growth obviously required beer. The trip from England to India is a long one, and beer tends to spoil when sloshed around in heat for months on end, needing extra preservatives to combat spoilage. Hops are preservatives. More hops turned the Pale Ale into the India Pale Ale yada, blah, yada, blah… It is a good story, but, it’s really just the start. The story of the American Pale Ale / IPA is much more important.
The creation of the American version of the IPA was a big factor in helping to re-energize the entire craft brewing and drinking industry that now surrounds us. The industry growth that we see today began in earnest in the late 80s and early 90s, and stemmed from a catalyst in the 70s. Most craft breweries were producing – especially by today’s standards – some pretty “vanilla” brews. It certainly appeared there was a formula in the industry: make 5 beers that were based on traditional styles with most of the interesting or aggressive flavor profiles muted. Basically, brew a “dumbed” down versions of imports.
There were plenty of ambers, unfiltered wheats, fruit flavored wheats, blondes, and even lagers. Anyone remember Rockies Premium Lager from Boulder Beer Co? How about Arapahoe Amber from Great Divide? In addition, there were several variations of the traditional English Pub “session” beer – the Bitter. The industry (maybe as an organized conspiracy) decided to call what were mostly the aforementioned styles of beer a Pale Ale or an Extra Pale Ale. They appropriated a name that wasn’t appropriate for the style. The vast majority wouldn’t come close to what we consider a Pale Ale by today’s standards. The industry probably felt that the word “Bitter” just wouldn’t move product.
There were also a few browns, porters, and stouts, and those were viewed widely by the drinking public at that time as being way too dark, big, and flavorful to drink regularly. Looking back, it seemed that the thought was “innovate and die”.
The industry became overpopulated by interchangeable, and sometimes just plain bad, beer. Very few people were concerned with innovation or challenging consumers to try something new. For those few breweries celebrating an anniversary over 15 this year, thank you for being the innovators and the change drivers. Turns out it wasn’t innovate and die. It was innovate or die.
The biggest modification actually took root many years before this assembly-line model of the microbrewery came to an end; most of us just didn’t realize it. The classic English IPA was morphed into the American Pale Ale through innovation. Somehow, the craft beer drinking public fully embraced something that was bold and aggressive, almost in unison. That has lead to the creation of all of the style variations today. That uniform acceptance didn’t suddenly happen, but it started with two men: Fritz Maytag and Ken Grossman.
Fritz Maytag and Ken Grossman should both be considered two of the Founding Fathers of the modern craft beer industry. Fritz Maytag fits that description for many reasons, but his most significant contribution to the industry may be creating the spark that pushed the craft brewing industry to new heights. Fritz created the American Pale Ale using the English IPA as inspiration, with a big dose of history and innovation. Anchor Steam was there when he bought the Anchor Brewery, and he made it better, but the beer with the biggest contribution to the industry is Liberty Ale.
Anchor Liberty Ale was first introduced on April 18th, 1975, to commemorate the bicentennial of Paul Revere’s famous ride. The significance of this brew is dry hopping. Liberty wasn’t the first to dry-hop – that started as late as the early 19th century, and probably even earlier than that. Liberty was the first commercially produced and distributed dry-hopped beer post-Prohibition, and the flavor that was created influenced many brewer and drinker alike. It was that explosion of big flavor that many brewers re-discovered and emulated. Fritz’s style became the American Pale Ale, commandeering the word “Pale” from the weaker and less bitter beers claiming that which was not theirs to claim.
With Ken Grossman at the helm, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has been the biggest driver of the American Pale Ale style. While the ale wasn’t brewed until November 15th, 1980, five years after the Liberty Ale, it was and is one of the biggest selling Pales in the country. In 2010, Sierra Nevada was the #2 volume craft brewery and the #6 overall volume brewery in the United States, with their Pale Ale as the flagship.
Of the top 50 breweries by volume, the American Pale Ale is the flagship brand of many. Big, bold, different, and aggressive flavors have helped drive the craft brewing industry to amazing growth in the last few years. From the mid 1970s to 1980 there were under 100 breweries in the Untied States, the lowest levels since 1930, post prohibition. In the last 30 years that number has exploded to over 1,760, the highest total since the late 1800s.
While there are still plenty of gateway beers in the market, and many of those ambers, unfiltered wheats, fruit flavored wheats, blondes, pilsners, and lagers can still be found, it’s the staggering growth of the American Pale Ale that grew from the traditional English IPA that was and is the major driver and influencer of that growth.
Consumers may make the switch from the American industrial lager through one of the gateway brews, but it’s generally the American Pale Ale that ignites the imagination, and then the new versions of IPA that creates the allegiance to continually choose a craft beer. Those big, bold, and aggressive flavors have opened many doors – anything that is Imperial, Sour, Wood Aged, Barrel Aged, Blended, or Experimental. The willingness of brewers to innovate, and the willingness of consumers to imbibe, all comes from the IPA.
It’s that constant exploration of flavor by both brewer and drinker that continues to drive the industry forward. Innovate or die thirsty.