For the longest time, Romanians have been a nation of lager drinkers. Not necessarily by choice, but because that’s what breweries made and, as a consequence, that’s what sold. Things started changing around the time craft breweries made an appearance on the market, and nowadays, a pint of IPA is one of the images most commonly associated with craft. But why is that? Out of all the beer styles, why do we have a soft spot for IPAs? Why do we dedicate so much time to drinking and talking about them? And why is it that so many Romanian craft breweries make them?
Let the numbers do the talking
If there was ever any doubt that IPA is the style that defines Romanian craft brewing, here’s some figures that will dispel any doubts.
Out of 47 stand-alone breweries in our database (not counting brewpubs), 39 have at least an IPA in their range. 25 had an IPA as part of their debut range. Out of the 20 gypsy and contract brewers, 13 have an IPA in their range (some only have IPAs), and 8 had an IPA as their debut beer. (Admittedly, gypsy brewers aren’t a proper indicator because, more often than not, they brew whatever they feel like.)
Out of the 50 top rated Romanian beers on Untappd, 31 are IPAs of some variety.
Out of the 280 new beers released in 2019, 112 were IPAs – that’s 40%. Out of the 161 new beers released in 2018, 60 were IPAs – around 37%. Out of the 92 new beers released in 2017, 32 were IPAs – again, around 34%.
Out of all the new beers released in 2020 so far, 72 are IPAs. True, the number is significantly lower than last year, but if so far the worst thing to have come out of the pandemic is fewer new releases, then so be it.
Of course, numbers alone are a bit of a simplistic approach when it comes to understanding the intricate relationship we have with this style. So let’s try to break it down a bit, starting with the main feature of IPAs:
‘The strong, bitter taste’
From a biological point of view, it makes little sense that we’re drawn to bitter flavours. We’ve evolved to like sweet foods and drinks because, for our ancestors, bitter or sour usually meant that something is inedible, even toxic. However, we now casually drink bitter beverages like wine and coffee, or enjoy bitter foods like Brussels sprouts and grapefruit. But before we delve further into taste, we must first take a look at the big picture: craft beer as a whole, and the people drinking it.
Millennials are the main consumers of craft beer in Romania, and incidentally, we’re also its target audience. All generations have this tendency to separate themselves from their parents’ generation and create a new identity for themselves. For us, the fall of communism in 1989 provided the perfect setting. We were the first generation to grow up with McDonalds, MTV, teen magazines that spoke openly about sex, and films and cartoons that we watched (undubbed and without subtitles) on cable TV.
In many countries where craft beer caught on, it was seen as a return to traditions and the idealized way their predecessors used to live. In Romania, that wasn’t quite the case. None of the millennials looked back on the previous 42 years of Communism with longing. As for whatever was before that, the days of the Romanian monarchy were so long ago they were unrelatable. Growing up exposed to western cultures, at a time when we were trying to define who we are, it was only natural that we would try to mimic our peers in the west. This shaped the way we think, act, speak (Rom-English is a good example), and also how we spend our money. Many of us work corporate jobs for international companies that have subsidiaries in Romania. We are paid more, we are more informed, more health-conscious, and can make more educated and selective purchase decisions. And this has also impacted our relationship with beer.
Going back to taste, lagers were by far the main style our parents drank. And because we needed to differentiate ourselves from our parents and their antiquated ways, as soon as we started earning enough to afford more than a PET bottle of Timișoreana, we started looking at better, tastier alternatives. Some of us chose wines, some cocktails and spirits, others continued down the beer route. Once capitalism became a thing in Romania, the market started seeing more and more imports: foreign lagers, German and Belgian wheat beers, stouts, and hoppy ales from the UK. And, slowly but surely, we started developing a taste for hops.
Because taste is such a differentiator when it comes to what we choose to put in our mouth, it’s likely that we went down the bitter route when switching to craft beer, and namely IPA, because it provided a change of scenery. The bitterness of hops was a telltale sign that told the new beer drinker that yep, this one is different. Of course, you could ask why we didn’t go for stouts, or wheat beers. This one’s a bit tricky. For starters, cloudy beers have, for the longest time, been associated with beer that has gone bad. The fizziness of a wheat beer also made people worry that it would make them bloated, or worse, upset their stomach. Dark beers are still associated with a higher ABV, and many people won’t consider them a choice when they’re out with their mates on a sessionable piss-up. Meanwhile, lagers were the bland, boring beers our parents drank, and everything else was just too unfamiliar. So naturally, IPAs were the best choice – the fact that they were damn tasty also helped.
In terms of sales, it’s debatable whether drinkers prefer IPAs because of the bitter taste. Looking at sales figures, lagers top consumer preferences worldwide. Last year, lager was the main beer style drunk in Romania, with a whopping 93% share of consumer preferences. Lagers are also cheaper, and more sessionable – you can drink 5 pints of lager, but might struggle with 5 pints of IPA. So perhaps looking at taste alone is not enough, which is why we must factor in another element into the equation: the beer drinker, and the way hops shape the ensuing drinking experience.
Let there be hops!
The way we perceive taste plays an important role in the way we drink and enjoy IPAs. Bitter taste receptors are located at the back of the tongue and also the throat, so when drinking a bitter beverage, the ‘harshness’ stimulates the brain to make us drink more. Some studies have also shown that people who are genetically less sensitive to picking up bitter taste (the majority of us, really) also drink alcohol more often than ‘supertasters’.
Of course, there’s more to IPAs than just bitterness. But for most drinkers, this is the one defining trait for a simple reason: hop taste and aroma are pretty straightforward compared to other beer ingredients, even for beginners. They allow drinkers to socialize and debate over what they’re drinking. Not everyone can explain how they perceive the body or mouthfeel of a beer, or whether a beer is true to style. But even novices can talk about whether an IPA is bitter, whether they’re picking up notes of citrus or pine in the smell, whether the taste makes them think of mangoes or pineapple. Hops make a craft beer more relatable, and nowhere do they shine quite like in an IPA.
Hops are also more exciting to talk about, and people are more likely to discuss the differences between Citra and Mosaic as opposed to Carafa vs chocolate rye. Similarly, nobody is going to discuss the differences between 2-row vs 6-row barley, or between spring and winter barley. Of course, one could argue that malts and their role in brewing is far more complex than that of hops. After all, malt is the backbone of any beer. But talking about malts (and yeast, for that matter) is brewers’ talk: it’s too technical and complex, and the average drinker doesn’t care that different mashing temperatures activate different enzymes in the malt, for example. And the differences are not that relevant to the drinker either. The majority of craft beer drinkers can’t pinpoint the difference in taste between a beer fermented with London Fog and London Ale III, or one brewed with Extra Pale and Pilsner Malt – mostly because these flavours are too subtle.
Hops, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. And here’s the other thing: even though there are drastically more hop varieties than types of malt, craft beer drinkers seem more invested in learning about the differences in aroma and taste between different hop additions and combos. But why is that?
Knowledge is power
Because there are so many types of IPA, they require a certain commitment from the drinker to understand them and what sets them apart. And in a way, this is another important element of craft beer: understanding what you drink. Ever since the dawn of the worldwide craft beer revolution, drinkers sought to understand beer and how to either brew their own, or look for better, tastier alternatives to macro – often it resulted in both.
Not all styles are as approachable when it comes to newcomers. On one hand, pale lagers don’t differ that much in terms of taste – whether they’re German, American, Mexican or Japanese. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Belgian beers are so vastly different and complex they can seem daunting to a beginner, and most of them are too flavour-intense to be palatable if you’ve only just crossed over from lagers. IPAs are an excellent middle-ground if you want to start your foray into craft beer. The common denominator is hoppiness, which although it can vary in intensity, it’s the defining trait of all IPA styles, and it’s something drinkers can relate to and enjoy.
From here, it’s a matter of taste, which is where understanding IPAs comes into play. If you prefer bitterness over aroma, West Coast is where it’s at. Aroma and fruity juiciness? NEIPAs will be right up your street. And as if styles weren’t enough, IPAs take their complexity and need for understanding craft beer further, by making it essential that you understand hops. An IPA brewed with Sorachi is going to taste drastically different from one brewed with Centennial, and if you don’t like it, then on your head be it – maybe you should have looked up Sorachi in advance. Same with hops that are new to the brewing world and you might have never even heard of, such as Lotus, Zappa, or Medusa.
It’s also important to understand IPAs because no batch will be the same. Batch to batch consistency is always a tedious affair, but when it comes to IPAs, it’s even more difficult because of their core ingredient: hops. Given the fact that Romania doesn’t have a hop growing infrastructure that could accommodate craft breweries, they always rely on imports – from Germany, the UK, Slovenia, New Zealand, the US, and so on. US hops play an essential role due to their higher alpha acids as well as complex aroma compounds, and most brewers prefer US cultivars – whether it’s something as basic as Cascade and Centennial, or newer breeds. The problem is that Romania is close to the bottom of this supply chain, and we have to make do with what’s available to us. In the US, breweries like Other Half can handpick the exact spot on the hopfield where their hops are growing. Meanwhile, Romanian brewers have to keep their fingers crossed that enough Galaxy is left after all the cool kids have finished their dry-hopping.
As a result, brewers often have to make adjustments to their recipes. And even if you were to strike gold and find a never-ending supply of your go-to hops, that doesn’t mean you’ll brew the same beer each time. Take Crowd Control for example: after over 140 batches, one would assume that Hop Hooligans have got it sussed, and that the only difference between each batch is the release and best before dates. Not quite the case.
Once more, understanding the backstage intricacies of brewing an IPA gives drinkers the ability to properly appreciate the beer. And because hops are easier to pick up in an IPA, they make the process of learning instantly rewarding.
“Don’t keep these babies waiting! Hops fade fast.”
Hops are all fun and games, but also remarkably fickle. For example, adding hops at the boil, flame out, whirlpool or in dry hopping will directly impact the taste of the beer. But in an IPA, hops also reduce the ‘shelf-life’ of the beer – even though, historically speaking, that was never their intended purpose.
The older an IPA is, the more its hoppy character diminishes. Indeed, as long as you drink it within its best before date, it’s still a good beer – but it’s not the beer it should be. It is perhaps the ephemeral character of IPAs that draws craft drinkers to them. Things get even more complicated when you factor in not just how long a beer has been stored for, but also how. All beers suffer greatly from bad storage, but because hops are such a volatile ingredient, IPAs will typically take the worst hit. As we’ll see in a bit, hops are a bit of a cheat-code ingredient, but IPAs brook no nonsense, and you can instantly tell whether an IPA hasn’t been packaged and stored right: not only does it look bad, it also tastes bad.
Tying in with the whole craft image, it’s no coincidence that the breweries that habitually brew IPAs also switched to canning. Cans keep their brand-defining beers safe from its main enemies: light and oxygen. The message they’re sending, incidentally, is that they are willing to go the extra mile to provide the best possible product. And it caught on with other brewers as well, to the point where having a canning line can be seen as a power move: not only do I care about keeping my beers in top shape, but I also have the financial means to do so.
By discussing the benefits of canning, breweries also help to reinforce the fact that craft beer is a natural product with a significantly shorter shelf life compared to macro, in a similar way that writing ‘unfiltered and unpasteurized’ on the label did. But this also highlighted the importance of keeping IPAs in the best possible conditions because it’s a more delicate beer style. Which takes us to the next point:
IPAs go hand in hand with what has become one of the selling points of craft beer: FOMO (fear of missing out). Because you have to drink them as fresh as possible in order to make the most of the hoppiness and not look like a twat for giving them a bad Untappd rating because you had them several months too late, IPAs ‘demand’ that you to seek them out as soon as they’ve left the brewery.
This constant quest to find the newest IPA releases is also fueled by hop farmers and the new varieties coming out each year. Hardened craft beer drinkers are just as fickle as the hops they enjoy so much, and are always looking for something new. They are in need of constant entertainment, and you can either play to their tune and release new stuff all the time, or someone else will. As long as there are new hops popping up on the market, you can make a new IPA each month, and continue to get people buying your beers. You can of course stop to think whether such a practice is sustainable in the long run, but with hop aromas fading with each passing day, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Style, stylistics, and… wait, what is IPA, even?
The problem with knowledge is that the more you know, the more you realize there are things you don’t know, and the more you seek to better understand what it is that you don’t know. For example, here’s a random selection of beers that have just ‘IPA (or India Pale Ale)’ as the style on the label:
All of these IPAs are different from one another. The hoppiness may be the common denominator, but when you pour them in a glass and drink them side by side, how do you even begin to judge them as IPAs and rate them accordingly? Shock Therapy is closer to New England style, Dambla is decidedly British, while Opium is closer to West Coast. So which one is the real IPA? Or is there even such a thing?
6 years after the first craft IPA was launched on the Romanian market, it’s no longer enough to just put ‘IPA’ on the label. As it stands, IPAs come in more shapes and forms than we could have imagined half a century ago. Calling them all ‘IPA’ seems simplistic. IPA isn’t a style anymore. If we were to look at it in terms of biology and taxonomic ranking, it is a genus of the beer family, and all of its variations are species – DIPAs, NEIPAs, Triple IPAs, Black IPAs, White IPAs, Brut IPAs, Sour IPAs, Milkshake IPAs, Rye IPAs,
Session IPAs – you get the picture.
In terms of modern IPAs, hazy IPAs are without a doubt the defining style. And yet, the lines between IPA and NEIPA are becoming even more blurred, as NEIPA-qualities become the defining traits of IPAs brewed by the core craft breweries. For example, even though it only has ‘IPA’ on the label, the iconic Shock Therapy range is now considered NEIPA by its brewers. The majority of Bereta IPAs also only say ‘IPA’ on the label, but upon closer inspection, they’re also New England-style. At the same time, beers that claim to be hazy/NEIPA on the label are the complete opposite of the style, such as the Hazy IPA from Fabrica Grivița (not at all hazy, and definitely amber in colour), or the Alter Ego collab between Blackout and Bere a la Cluj (its hop bitterness is through the roof!). You can argue that anyone drinking Bereta or Hop Hooligans should, by now, know that their IPAs are predominantly New England-style with biotransformation thrown in the mix, as opposed to the old-school IPAs other breweries favour. And, in a way, you’re right. Which leads us to the next pressing matter:
In a curious turn of events, we’re coming to a point where, in order to properly appreciate beers, you need to know not just the differences between styles, but also understand breweries and the way they make beer. Of course, one of the key traits of craft brewing is the strong community spirit, so in theory, you should be able to have an open discussion with brewers about how their beer is made and ask probing questions such as ‘Why is this hazy IPA not hazy at all?’. Problem is: it sounds good, doesn’t work. There are very few brewers that actually talk to their consumers about their beers, or at least designate someone who’s knowledgeable enough to handle their social media interactions. Technically speaking, they’re doing nothing wrong – brewing takes a lot of time, on top of other tasks such as delivering beers and drowning in bureaucracy. If you’re lucky enough to be friends with the brewers, you can always have a chat over a beer and a smoke and find out that they were not expecting Waimea to make their beer as bitter as it did. Not everyone has this ‘luxury’, though. And in a way, this can elicit a sense of divide not just between dedicated craft beer drinkers and ‘casuals’, but also between the way we perceive different craft breweries.
Failing to disclose vital information such as which type of IPA you’ve brewed can roughly translate into two things: the brewery doesn’t understand its target audience, or perhaps you’re not the intended target audience for its beers. There is no right or wrong to either approach. To a neophyte, an IPA is an IPA – it’s bitter because it has a lot of hops. Calling it a Dry-hopped West Coast IPA sounds confusing, and they might decide to go for something that’s more familiar. On the other hand, a seasoned craft beer drinker can point out that just calling it an IPA is not enough for them to properly appreciate the beer. They will have higher expectations: is it English-style or American-style? Is it brewed with New World hops or just copious amounts of East Kent Goldings? Is it dry-hopped in order to get the most out of the hop aroma, or does it mainly use hops for bitterness?
But wait – it gets even more complicated.
The greatest love story of the 21st century
In the current brewing climate, IPA is not just a style, it’s a brand. And thanks to the way modern marketing and advertising work, we have learned to develop an emotional connection to brands. In a capitalist market, the brands that are most enduring are the ones consumers have an attachment to. Quality may impact purchase decisions, same as pricing and convenience, but image plays an essential role because we identify with what we buy, and we are loyal to the brands that are closest to the image we have built of ourselves. Which is also why it’s more difficult and expensive to attract new customers, as opposed to keeping existing ones.
Earlier on, we looked at how taste and post-communist upbringing has shaped the way we drink, and the beers we buy. Sure, IPAs taste great, but they’re also cool, because they’re so unlike what our parents drank. They also tie in with modern, western attitudes which we are so keen to mimic.
This is very clear when you look at the core Romanian craft breweries (the ones that actively shaped the identity of craft beer) and the way they brew and talk. They’re not subjecting their drinkers to the impersonal, generic speech about ‘artizanal, după o rețetă tradițională, cu ingrediente 100% naturale, născut din pasiune’. Instead, they talk to drinkers as equals from the same generation. They have a distinct western identity, they have English names and use English (or Rom-English) in their social media posts (tarted up with copious amounts of emojis), they brew modern styles using modern hops, they’re cool yet relatable, and use ‘tu’ instead of ‘dumneavoastră’ when you chat them up at beer festivals. They are rockstars, and their band logo is ‘IPA’.
It’s because these breweries are closer to the way we wish to be perceived that we have developed an emotional attachment to them. It’s a bit of a ‘quid pro quo’ scenario: we buy craft beers (and, by extension, IPAs) because they’re cool and modern, and they continue to be cool and modern because we endorse them with each repeat purchase.
Given the fact that we are emotionally invested in IPAs and the breweries that taught us to drink and love them, it’s interesting to see how we’ve come to judge other breweries based on their own attitude towards IPA. Nowadays, whenever a new brewery launches, the one question we hear most often is: ‘Have you tried their IPA? Is it any good?’. A brewery that can pull off a good IPA is one step closer to getting the craft drinker’s seal of approval. Meanwhile, one that just uses the word ‘IPA’ to refer to a generic hoppy beverage in hopes of getting drinkers’ attention will most likely be met with a sidelong glance.
As drinkers, we have come to regard IPA as a yardstick for how ‘craft’ a brewery actually is – and we’re not the only ones doing it.
If you brew it, it will sell
The fact that the vast majority of Romanian craft breweries have at least an IPA in their range does raise the ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum: are they brewing IPAs because they sell, or do IPAs sell because so many breweries make them? We’ve come to a point where IPA is not just an important keyword, but also an endorsement for your brewery. If there’s one thing differentiating craft from macro in Romania, is that IPA is commonly brewed by the craft segment. One could even go as far as ask: if you’re not brewing IPAs, are you really craft? So it goes without saying that IPAs should be on your brew sheet.
For craft breweries, it’s tempting to think that as long as you brew an IPA, you’re going to be successful and acknowledged by drinkers as being craft. Not only is IPA an important keyword, but it also works as a cheat-code, and for many breweries, their IPAs receive higher average ratings than their wheats, ambers or lager-styles (with the exception of Bere Sara, whose IPA has dealt a devastating blow to their ratings).
The thing with IPAs is that they can be remarkably forgiving because of the hops: you can use them to mask off-flavours – not entirely, but enough to make your beer seem palatable. If it’s broke, dry-hop it, and fingers crossed it will be OK. Problems arise the moment you come across drinkers with an educated set of taste buds, who will call you out on your foul play. And here is where IPA once again comes in as a vital defining trait for craft brewing: it acts as a barometer for integrity.
Macro breweries are very apt at picking up what sells and what doesn’t, and are keen to mimic success stories. In 2019, Heineken did not release the Ciuc IPA because their board of directors had an epiphany and realised that IPAs are tasty. They brewed one because market analysis told them that we’re coming to a point where consumer preferences are changing and people are making more educated purchase decisions. To not brew an IPA would mean missing out on an emerging and profitable chunk of the market that needed a cheap, entry-level product, that still promises to deliver taste and quality with one keyword on the label: IPA. The fact that the Ciuc IPA was nowhere near the quality of craft IPAs was not even an issue for them – it was never the intended goal, because macro in Romania doesn’t fully acknowledge craft as a competitor.
Of course, nobody truly expects Heineken to feel bad for releasing an IPA that’s subpar – shame on them, but such is life. But if you, a craft brewer, expect me, a craft drinker, to take you seriously, then you must make a commitment to deliver a product that meets my expectations without trying to trick me by throwing in a lot of hops in some dubious brew and then serving it to me under the guise of an IPA. A craft beer drinker might be forgiving of a stout that lacks body, an under-carbonated lager, or a wheat beer that smells of dubious phenols instead of bananas (admittedly, to a point). But because IPAs have such an important spot in the hearts of drinkers and the identity of craft brewing, using a subpar beer dubbed IPA just to lure them to your brand verges on con artist tricks.
Finally, let’s take one more trip down memory lane, and see just how breweries started jumping on the IPA bandwagon.
The future is now, old man!
Cue 2014, the year when the irresistible hops met the (seemingly) immovable market. Back then, Ground Zero and their Morning Glory IPA taught Romanian entrepreneurs who were into brewing a very important lesson: that IPA has a place on the Romanian local market, and that it WILL sell.
Locally brewed IPAs have had an interesting evolution in the short time they’ve been around, with the industry shifting and budging to accommodate them. When Sikaru and Hophead debuted in 2015, they also provided drinkers with an IPA offering. Zăganu also brewed an IPA in 2015, after 2 years of being on the market. Opened in 2011, Clinica de Bere decided in 2016 that IPAs are worth adding on the menu. Bere a la Cluj followed suit with an IPA in 2017, same as Klausen Burger. Slowly but surely, brewers around the country understood that IPAs sell, and that providing your fan base with one is essential. Things were pretty straightforward for a bit, and they might have remained that way were it not for a completely unexpected contender: Citro.
In 2016, being the veritable beer geeks that they are, Bereta caught wind of something new and exciting brewing across the Atlantic: New England IPAs. When their Citro pale ale was released that same year, it aimed to change the way we drink IPAs by switching gears and putting hop aroma into the spotlight, as opposed to hop bitterness. The fact that the first batch of Citro was nothing like the prophecies foretold was inconsequential – the wheels had been set in motion. That same year, Hop Hooligans released their Crowd Control IPA – a beer that, after 20 batches, would be officially classed as a NEIPA, and after over 140 batches, would have forever and irrevocably changed drinkers’ perceptions about what IPA should look and taste like.
As if the craft beer playing field wasn’t complicated enough, brewers found themselves asking an important question: should we start brewing hazies as well? All the cool kids seem to be doing it. Soon enough, brewers started releasing beers labeled New England IPA, East Coast IPA, or even just Hazy IPA. Out of the 39 craft breweries that had already brewed at least one IPA, nowadays 14 also have something hazy on the menu.
It is difficult to predict what the future holds for IPAs – whether in Romania or elsewhere. During the IBU arms race of the early 2000s, nobody thought we would do a 180° switch from hop bitterness to juicy beers and hop aroma. And yet here we are, nursing our hop-battered taste buds with NEIPAs. Similarly, when Brut IPAs came out, everyone thought they would be all the rage – instead, they never really caught on. This time next year, we might all be drinking barrel-aged sour IPAs. Or maybe we’ll be feeling dandy sipping on seltzers spiked with hop oils that we’ll refer to as ‘Seltzer IPAs’ – who can tell?
Because IPAs are so versatile, they’re constantly poised to mutate and evolve. And as a result, they will never go out of fashion. Chances are we’ll be drinking them 50 years from now. True, they might be different from what we call IPA today. But our attachment to the style and the lore behind it will, no doubt, be the same.
PS: ultimately though, sours are where it’s at. Get lit!