The hoppiest and best hoppy beers are on found in the Pacific Northwest and in Southern California — the undisputed kingdom of hops… right?
How could the land of hop nirvana, with its bines just brimming with cones and sticky with resin not be the epicenter of anything hoppy and dank and delicious? One needs only to walk into a hop harvest or stroll among the endless rows of Centennial, Cascade, Citra and all of the other kinds to know that clearly, hops are how the West has won craft beer for the hop fans. If you did a SKU-level accounting for the amount of beers by style, I am certain you’d find that most of the IPAs in the U.S. are brewed in this region and I won’t dispute that. What I will dispute is where the best IPAs are being brewed and sold.
As an East-coaster living in Maine, I’ve been waiting. I’ve been watching. And I’ve been paying attention. Now, in 2014, with over 3,000 craft breweries going strong in the United States, I am here to report that times have changed since the dawn of the ultra-hoppy. The idea of the West Coast being the constant and perpetual king of the IPA is done — the East has usurped its throne.
The king of hops is dead. Long live the king.
I can hear the doubts mounting in your mind already. “Just because you have Heady Topper out there doesn’t mean you know anything about real IPAs,” and “Well, Lunch is only one example…”
But, you see, I come with evidence. Every year, Beer Advocate (BA) publishes a list of the top beers in each style — and this year’s IPA list caught my attention particularly. And, instead of just looking at one brewery or another, I decided to look at them all. Geographically.
When you take a closer look at the list, you start to see what got me so interested in the list in the first place. Where are the most IPAs on the list? Certainly not in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, 31 out of the 50 IPAs listed on the Beer Advocate list were from breweries located east of the Mississippi River. That’s 62% of the list located on the east side of the country, not west.
If we focus this on New England in particular, it’s lit up like a Christmas tree of hoppy beers. A bright line, extending from Philadelphia to Portland traces up the coast, and Vermont glows a bright red in the heatmap, and it includes everything from the iconic Maine Beer Company Lunch to the brand new breweries of Stoneface Brewing (Newington, NH) and Bissell Brothers (Portland, ME), each barely having arrived on the craft beer landscape in the last few years.
When I posted these maps to Twitter, I got an immediate response, with many accusing the BA data 0f being East-coast biased since the publication and website are based in the Boston, MA area. Not one to take such claims about data lightly, I decided that, to further this pursuit, I’d also visualize an equivalent list from the rating site, RateBeer, which is based on the West Coast.
I initially set out to look at the combined list of beers — include everything that is listed and see where it goes. If you do that, the beer map looks like this; still very lit up in the Northeast.
Consensus by beer
Combined, the lists include 76 unique beers from 48 breweries. There was a substantial difference in the two lists. A quick comparison found that only 26% of the listed beers appeared on both lists — they are listed below.
Between two lists of fifty beers each, getting twenty beers that both groups agree upon is still impressive, and to me indicates that, at the very least, we can infer that these IPAs are popular and well-liked among beer raters. I doubt many would argue that the beers on this list didn’t deserve to be there.
If you look at this regionally and you have an almost even distribution between the Northeast and the Pacific coast. While this is far from the East taking over, it does certainly start to point towards the West losing some of its assumed muscle.
Consensus by brewery
But, let’s dig even deeper. Let’s just look at the twenty breweries that are represented on both the Beer Advocate and RateBeer lists and thus are “agreed upon” by beer raters as being homes of some of the best IPAs. In a way, this can help to mitigate some of the effects of short batch beers making the list, but rather includes broadly, hop-forward breweries.
When you compare both lists at the brewery level instead of the beer level, this list agrees more — 20 of the 48 breweries represented are listed on both lists. For the record, this is not purely a geographic bias between the two sites — they simply reflect two collective points of view on IPAs.
Taken together, the below breweries could be described as the breweries making some of the U.S.’s most popular IPAs. It includes the expected — Russian River, makers of Pliny, and The Alchemist, of Heady Topper fame (though both of those are Double or Imperial IPAs, and not included on this list). But it also includes some that I didn’t expect to see making both lists.
So to revisit the regional graphic from the beer list above, we have a greater proportion of the breweries being in the East — with 40% of the breweries on the list located in MA, ME, or VT. The West Coast (even including the entry from British Columbia) makes up a mere 25% of the list.
A return to localism
So, why is this happening? The days of the giant brewery are gone. Those that made it to the big leagues — Stone, Sierra Nevada, etc., — are going to be occupying the national distribution scene for quite some time. In a way, the expanding distribution of breweries like these are what gave people far away from Cascadia a new (renewed?) taste for hoppy beers. With the abundance of hops available out west, all that was needed was to get those beers to our hop-starving market across the country. But if you ask most of the small, new nanobreweries opening up in the last few years, they’re perfectly happy to satisfy the market in their immediate surroundings instead of trying to satisfy the entire country. And local beer markets are doing the same — it is harder to get non-local beer into fiercely loyal states who are gung-ho about supporting their local brewers.
As a side effect of this local-centric growth, more breweries are deciding to make their own hoppy beers instead of relying on the hop bounty from afar. There’s also the bonus of freshness — the closer the brewery is to you the more likely you’ll receive an IPA as fresh as it can be. This contributes to the trend we are seeing in popularity of the best examples of IPAs available, as evidenced by the RateBeer and Beer Advocate lists.
To me, this is excellent news. I can now back up my claims that some of the best IPAs in the country are made in my neck of the woods, and that it is no longer necessary to go to Oregon, Washington and California to find the best that the country has to offer. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t — it is an amazing place to be, and while there it will take no effort to procure yourself a damn good IPA. My argument is that this evidence is beginning to show that the “common knowledge” about where to get a good IPA isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Of course there are other ways to look at this.
The data are from BA and RB are user-reported ratings data, which is calculated to correct the inherent imbalance in the number of reviews any given beer had received.
In terms of pure objectivity, of course it’s not perfect. But there’s no control here. There’s no one expert-driven list of the best IPAs to compare it to. Instead, we have a statistical ranking, which is shifting and changing as people add more data to the system. And yes, when sites like BA have taken the time to calculate these lists, it means something — certainly more than the random lists of “10 Best Places to Eat a Grilled Cheese Sandwich” that are the rage right now. While the several hundred or thousand ratings that have generated these lists do probably make up a small part of the population of craft beer drinkers, they do show a pattern. They do show us trends, and they do give us insight into what consumers are drinking.
Question your assumptions
If tomorrow, Santa Claus emailed me the same Beer Advocate list from the last fifteen years, I’d happily make an animated gif of the mapping that would illustrate what I believe would be a slow eastward march — revealing the changing tastes over time. We’re beginning to question our assumptions — and right now can only look at a snapshot of where we are. It is my hope that as beer drinkers, we continue to re-examine some of our “known truths” to bring them into the light of what’s really going on now — whether that’s by dissecting some data, or by cracking open an IPA.