Do We Really Need Six New Styles of IPA?

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During his war with the Roman Empire, the King of ancient Armenia — Tigranes the Great — received a message from a runner. The messenger informed him that the Roman commander Lucullus was on his way. This so enraged Tigranes that he had the messenger beheaded. As the war continued, no messenger dared bring the king bad news. So, from that point on, he only heard from messengers telling him what he wanted to hear.

This week, the BJCP released their new 2015 guidelines. They also updated their mobile app. Included in the guidelines is a new IPA subcategory called Specialty IPA that includes six new (or new-ish) varieties of IPA — Belgian IPA, Black IPA, White IPA, Red IPA, Rye IPA, and Brown IPA. (English IPA and Double IPA were moved to categories called Pale Commonwealth Beer and Strong American Ale, respectively.) Among some brewers, the response was (figuratively) similar to Tigranes. “Do we really need umpteen @$%&ing new IPAs in the guidelines?,” many said.

There are arguments for and against this idea, and I’ll lay them out here. (If there are other arguments that I’ve left out, please feel free to add them in the comment section.) I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have an opinion, but I’m going to try to present both sides of the argument fairly.

The main arguments against including so many IPA variants are that there are so many, that they are all similar — either to American IPA or other styles — and that they are all new, and potentially “flashes in the pan.” The main argument for including all the IPA variants is that they are getting brewed by homebrewers and submitted to contests. In other words, complaining to the BJCP about the proliferation of IPA substyles is shooting the messenger.  

“There’re Too Many New IPA Styles Out There — Oh, And They All Suck”

This argument — alternately phrased as, “There’re too many @$%&ing new IPA styles out there, and they all @$%&ing suck” — is a popular refrain among a growing set of craft beer lovers. Our beer shelves are increasingly crowded with new brands with IPA in the title, while many classic, world-class beers are getting harder and harder to find.

The other part of the argument is that so many of the “other” IPAs just aren’t any good. The combination of malts and hops that go into an American IPA is, in my opinion, a great match that produces a great beer, when brewed properly. Adding this, that, the other to an American IPA rarely — or, you know, never — results in a better beer. Every once in a long while it might result in a beer almost as good, but it usually makes the beer worse. Let’s face it, adulterated American IPAs more often than not taste like crap. Likewise, piling hops on every existing beer style doesn’t work, either. When experienced brewers talk about balance, they are being serious — not every possible combination of beer ingredients yields a beer worth drinking.  

“What About Session IPAs And IPLs?”

Another, contrasting,  complaint could potentially be that the BJCP hasn’t gone far enough. If they think brown IPA deserves its own substyle, what about session IPAs? What about India pale lagers (IPLs)? IPLs aren’t that popular, but then again, neither are brown IPAs. Session IPAs, in contrast, are everywhere.

In this case, the choices made by the BJCP seem a bit odd. If you want to include every IPA variant, then include them all. If not, leave the major ones (from the 2008 guidelines) in and simply leave the substyles in the Specialty IPA category undescribed.

This sort of argument is, of course, the same argument for or against including minor styles that occurs in every revision of the guidelines. At some point, though, it seems to me that the BJCP is going to have to decide if it is going to enshrine every single minor substyle in the world with an official style guideline. Or is it going to describe only the major styles of beer, and just lump all minor styles into one (or a few) catchall categories, according to how often these styles show up at contests. On the one hand, having a description of every beer style — no matter how obscure — would have its benefits. On the other hand, who wants to sit through that awards ceremony? (“In category 847, Late 1980’s Brewpub-style Cloudy Brown Ale, the bronze goes to Bill Johnson for his “Batch #1.”) 

“Black IPA Is Just Hoppy Porter”

Some brewers would additionally argue that many of the new IPA styles are just hoppier versions of an existing style. Black IPA is just a hoppy porter. Brown IPA is just a hoppy American brown ale. Red IPA is just a hoppy amber ale. This argument has a long, mostly settled, history going back to when some argued that Imperial IPA was really just hoppy American barleywine.

There are a lot of IPAs out there. And, while there are black IPAs that seem a lot like a hoppy porter, there are others that really do seem more like a darkened IPA. The difference between the two styles may be small, and overlapping within commercial examples, but this is not the only place within the guidelines that styles overlap. And if “don’t overlap” became a rule, how many styles would have to be merged to accommodate this? (For example, do we really need multiple versions of brown ale or porter? Most brewers would probably say yes, there are useful distinctions between the styles.) 

“These Styles Are Just A Fad — And ‘IPA’ Is Just A Marketing Tool.”

Many brewers see the current fascination with IPAs as a fad, one that will run its course soon. “Regular” American IPA is great, the argument goes, but its variants aren’t as good as the original. If that’s the case, then “other” IPAs will soon start disappearing from store shelves. (And if “IPA” comes to be seen as a gimmick — if preceded by anything other than “English,” “American,” or “double” — some of the “not quite IPAs” that are actually decent will get quietly renamed as something else. A hoppy porter. A hoppy witbier. That sort of thing.)

So, the argument would be, if these styles are just a fad (and perhaps driven more by marketing concerns than stylistic concerns), why give them a substyle? Shouldn’t there be a waiting period to see if the style “sticks” before elevating it to the status of bitter, tripel, or Octoberfest? Those styles have stood the test of time, after all.  

The “Too Many IPAs” Solution

For those who buy any of the above arguments, the solution would be for the BJCP to stick with its existing (2008) style descriptions, and leave it to brewers to decide on a suitable category for their contest entries. Does your black IPA seem enough like a colorized American IPA to compete in that category? Or would it fare better against robust porters? An upside to this would be that beers labelled as IPA would have to closely resemble IPAs in all but one attribute, or they would have to be entered as something else to be competitive. The downside would be that a lot of beers would be forced into categories where they wouldn’t be competitive or, if there’s no suitable other beer style category for them to go, into Category 34C “Other” hell.

There is, of course, one other joke solution. Just reissue the existing 2008 guidelines, plus an addendum with every style repeated, but with “IPA” appended to it.   

The “This Is The Right Thing To Do” Argument

There’s really only one persuasive argument for the changes made — they had to do it. The purpose of the BJCP Guidelines is to help judges score the beers entered in homebrew contests. If contests are seeing a significant amount of IPA variant entries, this has to be addressed. Even if you think, as I do, that the whole “IPA thing” has gotten out of hand, the BJCP can’t just wish it away. You could argue over which IPA variants made the cut and which didn’t, but you can’t deny that homebrewers are brewing a lot of “other” IPAs.

Basically, most of the arguments against the new IPA substyles come from people (like me) who think that those “IPAs” mostly suck and are driving many excellent non-IPA-labelled beers to extinction. But, the BJCP doesn’t dictate what commercial brewers brew (or if the beers are good or not); they simply describe beers popular enough among homebrewers to warrant it. And if homebrew contests are being flooded with “other” IPAs, whose fault is that? (Hint: not the messenger.) 


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