OK, that headline is a bit misleading. I don’t actually have a problem with American IPAs. But, there is a slight issue when it comes to judging them within the Beer Judge Certification Program’s (BJCP) guidelines.
In short: That highly celebrated, award-winning American IPA you’re about to drink might not taste like a traditional American IPA.
For the unfamiliar, the BJCP is basically the standard setter for beer styles. It outlines the parameters for your favorite beer styles and also educates and certifies judges across the country who evaluate the quality of beers based on those parameters. (all of DRAFT’s judges are BJCP certified). It’s a fantastic program and its BJCP Guide is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the how and why behind everything from American ambers to Russian imperial stouts (download the guide to your phone for a fantastic pocket resource).
But, what happens when beer styles in real life evolve beyond their descriptions on paper?
The last time the BJCP updated its style guidelines was 2008. For the most part, that’s not really a big deal. Russian imperial stouts, Baltic porters, weizenbocks, cream ales—actually, the vast majority of beer styles—aren’t evolving. In the case a brewery does release an experimental spin on an old style, it would typically fit neatly into the “catch-all” Specialty Beer judging category. But that’s not the case for American IPAs.
The main problem (a delicious one, at that) is the new wave of hop varieties. The last few years, American IPAs have taken on new, experimental hops and, more importantly, hops from Australia and New Zealand—like Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin and Pacific Jade. Black pepper, passionfruit, white grapes and gooseberries are just a few of the new flavors these hops impart. Let’s take a look at the 2008 BJCP guidelines for American IPAs.
From the “flavor” section:
“[Hop flavor] should reflect an American hop character with citrusy, floral, resinous, piney or fruity aspects.”
From the “history” section:
“An American version of the historical English style, brewed using American ingredients and attitude.”
The vague “fruity” mention in the flavor guidelines leaves enough room so gooseberry wouldn’t throw it entirely out of style. But, in theory, an exceptional IPA brewed with Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin hops faces different scoring challenges in the American IPA category than one brewed with Cascade and Columbus.
But, should that be the case?
The best example I’ve come across is the appropriately named Schlafly Tasmanian IPA. It’s a single-hopped Galaxy IPA and easily one of my favorite IPAs of the last 12 months (pick up a sixer when it’s released in October). It pops with mango, grapefruit, white grape and floral notes; washes back with firm bitterness; and offers just enough malt backbone to carry the sip. But, it’s not exactly a traditional American IPA.
So what do we—those charged with judging these beers and relaying to readers which ones to try—do about this problem? The reality is that we still judge them in the American IPA category, with an acknowledgement that the style’s flavor descriptors go beyond what’s listed on the page (again, “fruity” is perfectly vague). This, of course, is assuming the rest of the beer (malt backbone, IBUs, ABV, etc) falls within the style’s parameters.
While we thoroughly detail a beer’s flavor profile in the review, consumers who just read the score might find a praised American IPA brewed with Galaxy hops very different from what they expected. Some might even be disappointed.
There are two solutions to fix this issue. Either the American IPA guidelines are modified to incorporate a wider variety of hops, while still maintaining the style’s vital statistics, or an entirely new IPA category is created to incorporate the extremely popular hops from Down Under. It could be called something like Pacific Rim IPA and even incorporate the Japanese-originated and highly popular Sorachi Ace hop.
The Brewers Association tackled a similar issue with the International-style Pale Ale category at the Great American Beer Festival competition. Although broad in definition, “The style is characterized by wide range of hop characters unlike fruity, floral and citrus-like American-variety hop character and unlike earthy, herbal English-variety hop character.”
Last April, we reached out to grandmaster beer judge and BJCP president Gordon Strong about future updates to the guidelines, but have yet to hear back. The growing popularity of beer styles still relegated to the Specialty Beer category (black IPAs, imperial red ales, rye IPAs, etc.) probably gives the organization a large enough headache when considering the next major style update. But, for the sake of judging and consumer awareness, I wouldn’t be surprised if addressing this IPA conundrum is near the top of the priority list.