A walk down the beer aisle is increasingly reminiscent of a trip to a tiki bar.
Where IPA fans might have once chosen a beer based on strength — regular; potent imperial; lower-alcohol session — there’s now a veritable tropical fruit salad of flavors to choose from: pineapple, grapefruit, mango, tangerine, tangelo, prickly pear.
Sales of flavored IPAs skyrocketed in 2015, according to data presented at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia this month, with “tropical flavored” IPA sales increasing by 250 percent year-on-year even though they make up only 8 percent of the flavored IPA market.
Much of the credit or blame, depending on your point of view, falls on San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing Co. The brewery’s Sculpin IPA has long been a favorite in the beer community, and at its San Diego tap house, the company experiments with casks of Sculpin infused with mango, grapefruit and other ingredients. (“Name a fruit or a vegetable or a spice, and we’ve probably added it to a beer,” says Hilary Cocalis, vice president of marketing.) In the summer of 2014, the company released Habanero Sculpin and Grapefruit Sculpin, the latter redolent of tangy rind and juicy bitterness thanks to the addition of Florida grapefruit. Sales went through the roof. In some markets, Cocalis says, the Grapefruit Sculpin outsells the regular Sculpin.
Ballast Point experimented with even more fruit-accented beers in its tasting rooms, and by last year’s IPA Day celebrations, it was pouring a Pineapple Sculpin, a mango version of Even Keel Session IPA, and a Watermelon Dorado IPA. All of those went national in January. Outside of IPAs, Ballast Point unveiled Fathom India Pale Lager, with orange and vanilla, and several takes on Victory at Sea Imperial Porter, including one with coconut. It sounds like fruit-flavored overkill, but “we’re just creating beer we want to drink,” Cocalis says. “We’re not just adding fruit to more beers to jump on the trend.” An interesting note: Cocalis adds that Ballast Point isn’t reformulating its beers for each of these variants but keeping the same Sculpin recipe no matter which fruit is added.
Once Ballast Point’s fruity beers began taking over tap lines and stealing prime space at beer stores, other breweries began to announce and release their own versions. New Belgium’s current offerings, for example, include Citradelic, a beer brewed with 10 kinds of hops and “tangerine-infused orange peel,” which gives off rich tangerine and mango notes, and Juicy Mandarina, an imperial IPA exploding with citrus notes.
New Belgium brewer Ross Koenigs suggests that the popularity of fruit IPAs has two roots. First, he says, these brews “are expanding the tent of IPA drinkers” beyond those who prize dank, piny, bitter beer. Fruit “lends a perceived sweetness to the beer, which cuts through a lot of the bitterness of hops. As a result, people like my mother, an exclusive sauvignon blanc drinker, can now enjoy this new variant on IPA.”
The other, more practical reason for this flavor explosion, Koenigs theorizes, comes down to hops. These juicy new beers are result of brewers experimenting with a new generation of hops prized for their aromatic qualities rather than just their bittering properties. “I have smelled hops that smell like strawberry shortcake all the way to toasted coconut,” he says. And those sweet hops naturally are making beers that lend themselves to additions of bright fruit flavors.
“We’re so hop-forward, and some of these hops match up so well with fruit,” says Mike Hinkley, the co-founder of Green Flash Brewing. “We almost treat fruit like part of the hop profile. It complements and contrasts: What does grapefruit taste like with Simcoe? What does grapefruit taste with Citra? On the grain side, it’s about matching the sweetness. It just becomes part of the mix.”
Last fall’s Green Flash Treasure Chest, an annual limited release benefiting breast cancer charities, was an IPA brewed with grapefruit, prickly pears and hibiscus. (I called it “a tiki IPA” when reviewing it for Beer of the Week.) Two new beers joined the San Diego brewery’s lineup in February: Tangerine Soul Style IPA — a version of the year-round Soul Style made with fresh tangerine puree from a California farmer — and Passion Fruit Kicker Wheat Ale.
The gospel is spreading to the East Coast, even among brewers who’ve never made a tropical IPA before. Tom Knorr, the owner of Evolution Brewing in Salisbury, Md., enjoyed grapefruit IPAs last summer and thought about making his own fruit beer, “but we didn’t want to jump on everyone else’s bandwagon.” In the fall, his brewers began experimenting with different IPAs, using a Belgian yeast to impart fruitiness and playing around with fresh pineapple juice and organic extracts. A test run of three half-barrels sold out the first night they were available in the brewery tasting room.
Pine’Hop’Le IPA finally hit stores and bars in early April of this year. The pineapple sweetness and bitter hops are strongly integrated, making it a very crushable beer. It quickly became Evolution’s second-best-selling brand, behind Lot 3 IPA, moving more than 7,000 cases in a month. “This category is pretty explosive right now,” Knorr says. “We’re brewing it non-stop, getting prepared for summer.” (Conveniently, his brewery is located along the heavily traveled route between the District and Ocean City.)
For Hugh Sisson, the founder of Baltimore’s Heavy Seas Beer, there’s no shame in admitting that he’s jumping on the tropical IPA bandwagon: “The market is hot for citrus IPAs, so we decided we’re going to do one.” Like Ballast Point and Green Flash, Heavy Seas honed its recipe by experimenting with fruit additions into cask-conditioned firkins of IPA in the brewery tap room, going through “30 or 40 iterations” of the flagship Loose Cannon IPA before coming up with TropiCannon, which is strongly infused with grapefruit, mango, orange, blood orange and lemon peel.
Unlike at other breweries, Sisson didn’t intend for TropiCannon to be a permanent fixture in the Heavy Seas lineup. The beer was intended to be sold from April through June, and Sisson thinks it might even be sold out before then, before it wears out its welcome. “We’re living in the age of ‘What do you have that’s new?’ ” he says. “I think there will always be a market for classic styles. But I think the public is fickle.”
The tidal wave of tropical beers shows no signs of subsiding — there’s Stone’s Enjoy By 5.30.16 Tangerine IPA, Ardent’s Ardent’s Tangelo IPA, Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Tropical IPA to name a few – and that was a topic of the discussion at the Craft Brewers Conference. Jennifer Litz-Kirk, an executive editor at industry journal Beer Business Daily, compared the mania for fruit beers with the explosion of fruit-flavored vodkas a few years ago, calling it “the flavored-vodkafication of beer.” She said the trend is “getting a little bit faddish” and might be due for a correction.
Heavy Seas owner Sisson has a cautionary tale: “Three or four years ago, black IPAs were all the rage,” he says. “We released Black Cannon, and Beer Advocate [magazine] called it ‘the benchmark for the style’ [in March 2013]. And by the time we released it for the third year as a seasonal, sales kind of petered out.”
Black Cannon is no longer part of the Heavy Seas lineup.
But summer’s on the horizon, and a smooth, citrusy tropical IPA sounds refreshing. By the time Labor Day rolls around? We’ll see.