Chain operators’ guests are falling in love with IPAs. In 2009, the style was responsible for 2.8 percent of the total beer market in the United States; last year, that figure jumped to 6.3 percent, according to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company. Whether draft or bottle, domestic or import, guests are often gravitating towards hopped-up brews with overt bitter tones. Operators have shared their thoughts on the reasons for their rising popularity, how they are merchandized and marketed, food pairing tips and even techniques for attracting the IPA-averse.
India Pale Ale was first brewed in England in the nineteenth century, using pale malt that gave the style its moniker. IPA’s heavy inclusion of hops gives the brew its distinctive bitterness—making it a polarizing subcategory among beer fans. “Most of them either love or hate the style, as it’s very complex, with a heavy bitterness,” admits Kip Snider, director of beverage for the Irvine, California-based Yard House Restaurants, which operates 36 upscale, casual American fusion restaurants in twelve states. Each location sells between twelve and twenty IPAs, including Traditional, English, Black, White, Red, Double, Imperial and also those blended with Belgian beers.
Why the Category is Hot
Snider views IPA as one of the hottest growing beer styles for several years running, as beer drinkers’ palates continue to evolve, as guests look for heartier, fuller-bodied brews. Popular brands at western U.S. Yard House locations include Ballast Point, Bear Republic, Green Flash and Firestone; closer to the East Coast, guests order Dogfish, Harpoon and Southern Tier. Most range from $6 to $7 per pint.
“IPAs are quickly becoming mainstream, like the California Cabernet or the Northern Rhône [wines] of the beer world,” declares Joshua Pauley. “They are huge, massive and intense beers that spare no expense in the flavor department.” The beverage director for Black Restaurant Group, based in Bethesda, Maryland with seven concepts in the Washington, D.C. area, offers about a dozen IPAs at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Black Jack, a duo of venues under the same roof with 78 and 40 seats, respectively. Prices range from $5 for Butternuts Snapperhead IPA, to $9 for Six Points Bengali Tiger IPA.
Patrick Kirk cites two specific reasons for IPAs’ surge in popularity: Americans’ increasingly sophisticated palates, and the migration of many brands from limited availability to widespread distribution. The director of beverage for the Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings, with 830 wing-, beer- and sports-focused locations, believes more and more guests are craving the taste for a hoppy beer. “Ten years ago, people used to talk about how they acquired their taste for beer. Today, people talk about how they’ve acquired tastes for different styles of beer,” including IPA.
Buffalo Wild Wings locations typically offer one to four IPAs on draft. Since Kirk notes that guests are willing to pay $2 to $3 more for them in general than for regular domestic brands, IPAs can represent a greater profit margin for operators. Buffalo Wild Wings’ IPAs are priced around $6 to $13 a pint, and American craft IPAs are most popular.
“We do well with Harpoon IPA out East, Southern Tier IPA in the Southeast, Odell IPA and Deschutes Inversion IPA out West, and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA wherever we carry it.” Over the past year, management has taken a closer look at the multitude of craft breweries dotting the map—drilling down even by zip code—to make sure they aren’t overlooking a potentially hot-selling beer.
A propensity toward top quality sudsy offerings with prices to match boosts IPA sales. “People are drinking better high-end beers,” adds Kim Gaiser, general manager of barge operations for Hooters’ thirty-five locations in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, as well as The Beer Seller and JB Fins, all owned by the Kentucky-based RMD Corporation. “If the beer is good, they don’t mind paying for a better product.” The Beer Sellar’s three locations are owned and operated by the Louisville, Kentucky-based R.M.D. Corporation. Beer Sellar Newport (Kentucky) carries fifteen IPAs on draft, ranging from $4.75 to $7.75 a pint. Any beer higher than seven percent alcohol is served in a ten-ounce snifter, including Founders Centennial IPA and Harpoon Leviathan Imperial IPA.
Trends in the shaker also mirror guests’ current tastes for brews, and influence those who produce them. “There is a certain sophistication that comes along with bitter, Old School cocktails. They are drinks for mature people who have seasoned palates,” muses Pauley. Just as bartenders have revived Pre-Prohibition cocktails with bitters and bitter liqueurs, brewers are trying to one-up each other, with super intense double IPAs and dry-hopped styles. While Pauley believes this über bitter beer trend will level off, IPA as a style is here to stay.
But encouraging guests who typically eschew hoppy beers is a gradual process. “You don’t just go from drinking a domestic light to an IPA overnight,” admits Kirk. He recommends suggesting Pale Ale or Czech Pilsner to curious guests, both of which are a bit more accessible for an IPA newbie. Small tasting samples from bartenders pique palates and encourage guests to order a pint, and he points to New Belgium’s Ranger IPA as a great introduction to the category.
IPAs and other highly hopped beers are measured by IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Snider explains that while hops provide bitterness to a beer, the addition of malt balances and hides some of that bitterness. English and other IPAs with fifty or less IBUs are most approachable to beginners. Pauley suggests a light fresh citrusy style as a fitting starting point. “They pack a huge amount of flavor, but stay light on the palate and can be very refreshing with their intense citrus notes.” His favorite also happens to be the most popular at Black Jack: Great Lakes Commodore Perry IPA.
Gaiser notes that hoppy popularity crosses gender lines, with more women ordering diverse beer selections at R.M.D.-operated venues. “A few years ago, women would shy away from our beer selection and drink liquor.” Today, she said they are turning to heavier, fuller-bodied beers, including porters, stouts and IPAs. Bartenders offer two-ounce samples of Bells Two Hearted Ale. “It helps break down the barrier and intimidation that our vast beer selection has over a new customer.”
Education and guest interaction definitely help to seal the sale. “When our guests inquire about an IPA, we want our servers and bartenders to be able to speak about it and make a recommendation,” explains Kirk of Buffalo Wild Wings. Yard House bartenders and team members engage in a bit of sleuthing to determine a guest’s preferred beer style—and their willingness to step out of their comfort zone. “We really have to ask questions when our guests are asking about the IPA style, to see how advanced their palates are,” admits Snider. “We may start them off with something balanced and lighter on the IBU scale, to more extreme offerings that might have that over-the-top bitterness [on the finish].”
“People who don’t know much about IPAs just look at them like huge alcohol bombs that are too bitter to drink like any other beer,” admits Pauley. What’s key, he believes, is getting guests to understand that the higher alcohol level and intense hop bitterness is meant to be sipped and savored slowly—unlike other less cerebral beers whose raison d’être is quaffing and refreshment.
IPAs’ moxie certainly lends itself to equally zesty food partners. “They have enough body and hop presence to really stand up to the big bold flavors on the menu,” says Pauley, who says that the bitter acidity cuts right through the fat in dishes on Black Jack’s menu like Swine Lover’s Pizza ($13), “Stacked” Duck Confit Nachos ($12) and the Pennsylvania Amish Fried Chicken Dinner ($19). At Buffalo Wild Wings, Kirk points out that a hoppy IPA can stand up to the hottest wing-topping sauces.
He also notes that IPA aficionados show a lot of pride in their beer, but submits that the style has a growing—but still present—niche. “IPAs are not for the faint of heart and it takes an adventurous drinker to branch out and try one.”