Friday, July 5, 2013

Session #77 - IPA: What's the Big Deal?

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic, and creates a round-up that lists all of the participants. I have the pleasure of hosting this round of The Session, and I've got a big question on my mind: what is the big deal about IPAs?

As I said in the announcement for Session #77, it's not that I don't like the India Pale Ale style. In fact, I rather enjoy it. What I don't get is why it's sooo popular. What makes it "the" craft beer style of choice? Have you ever noticed that restaurants that list their beer selection by style usually start off with the IPAs? What gives?

Maybe it's so popular because it's so different from, say, a Miller Lite or a Bud Light. Those beers are available everywhere, and they are extremely popular with non-CBEs*. So when someone is feeling adventurous and wants to try something different, well, what's more different than a beer that tantalizes your taste buds? But what about the bitterness aspect? Many IPAs are quite bitter, which doesn't typically translate into refreshing, and many people want to drink a beer in order to cool off and wind down. So many questions!

How about this? The craft beer industry recognized all of the above and developed a business model that just made sense. To be competitive, businesses typically focus on either differentiation or cost. Considering that the "big boys of beer" have such economies of scale that it's easy to keep costs low, the craft beer industry could never compete in that arena. And that's okay – I think CBEs would rather have "different". It's in the name: craft beer. CBEs want to know that the artisans who brew our beer focus on being creative, developing innovative ideas, and crafting their product. And for that, we're willing to pay a little extra to be "wowed". All things considered, it's blatantly obvious that the craft beer industry must differentiate itself from AB InBev and their ilk.

The craft beer market wants differentiation, too. People want variety and choices. They want to try new things and share their experiences with others. Conventional wisdom says that word-of-mouth advertising is the best way to spread ideas; people value a two-way conversation and trust what their friends have to say more readily than what a company tells them through one-way channels such as TV and radio. People also want to be part of a community, to connect with others. So when one person tries a craft beer and loves it, it is likely that they will then share this information with their friends. Of course, their friends have friends, the sum of which comprises a community of people that have similar tastes and interests. I like to refer to this community as the Craft Beer Enthusiasts, and it is the community of CBEs that has taken the craft beer industry to where it is today.

All that being said, I think people want IPAs simply because they're different from the norm. (Of course, if they get to be too popular, they'll become the norm!) People are funny – they want to be different from everyone else, yet they want to fit in. I think that's where the craft beer industry does it right. CBEs can enjoy beer that is not overcommercialized, which helps them be different from everyone else, while at the same time be part of the CBE community, where they fit in. (We're all unique, just like everyone else.) Give the people what they want!

Oh, and also, IPAs taste great. Prost!

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* CBE = Craft Beer Enthusiasts