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How the East Coast Won the Battle for the IPA

In less than a half-decade, the unique style of hazy, juicy, barely bitter IPA associated with the east coast has overtaken its west coast counterpart. Aaron Goldfarb on when the tide began to change, and the breweries who hastened to follow suit.

In February of 2013, I finally got to visit what had long been the epicenter of the American IPA: San Diego. I pounded fresh pints of Ballast Point Sculpin alongside numerous fish tacos; held up the bars at Hamilton’s, O’Brien’s and Pizza Port; and even drove outside of town to Alpine Beer Company, right on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest. At Alpine, I eagerly tasted through a lineup of hoppy gems like Duet, Nelson and Exponential Hoppiness, while my wife sipped a Diet Coke (someone had to get us home). Their Bad Boy was literally the best IPA I’d ever had up to that point in my life. I remember dreaming of drinking a beer that good back in New York.

Little did I realize, the tide was already turning.

In less than a half-decade, the east coast IPA—more specifically the “Northeast” or “New England-style” IPA—has become the preeminent breed of IPA. While most east coast breweries ipso facto make east coast IPAs, the unique style associated with the right coast—hazy, juicy, barely bitter—has become popular everywhere from Columbus to Portland to San Francisco, Los Angeles and, yes, even San Diego. Meanwhile, one of the top threads on the BeerAdvocate forum is currently titled “Is the West Coast IPA Still Relevant?”, the original poster observing, “I can’t remember the last time I heard someone get jazzed on a West Coast IPA.”

When did this seismic shift take place?

The first American IPAs to breakout were dependent on the piney flavor and intense bitterness that came from “C” varietal hops—Columbus, Cascade, Centennial—born in the Pacific Northwest. The west coast had hometown advantage, so to speak, and the west coast-style IPA became the prototype for the style for over a decade.

Early on, the Midwest produced a few lauded IPAs as well, like Minneapolis Town Hall’s Masala Mama, which hit No. 4 on the BeerAdvocate Top Beers list in 2005, and Three Floyds’ Dreadnaught (Indiana), which hit No. 7 that same year. But, by the end of the aughts, it was a truism that the west coast was where the IPA reached its apex, in beers like Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and AleSmith IPA.

During the second half of the aughts, the east coast was barely a consideration. In fact, February, 2010’s top 100 features 19 IPAs or double IPAs, only one of them from the east coast. That was Delaware’s Dogfish Head and their 90 Minute IPA (at No. 50), pretty much the only east coast IPA that had ever made BeerAdvocate’s list up to that point.

Then Hurricane Irene came in August of 2011, decimating the Bahamas, Brooklyn and tiny Waterbury, Vermont, where a cult brewpub called The Alchemist had stood on Main Street since 2003. His business all but destroyed, owner John Kimmich had no choice but to put 100 percent of his focus behind production of Heady Topper, a sui generis IPA he had just started canning off-premises, at an undamaged cannery down the street. The increased availability of this fruity, hazy beer turned it into a word-of-mouth sensation. By January, 2013, it was the No. 1 beer in the world.

Other breweries quickly followed suit, making these uniquely east coast, Heady-inspired IPAs. There was Lawson’s Finest, also from Vermont, who found success with Double Sunshine (No. 6 in 2014) and eventually their first canned offering, Sip of Sunshine. There was Hill Farmstead, now considered the best brewery in the world, which was more acclaimed for their farmhouse offerings but still able to reel off successful IPAs like Abner (No. 14 in 2014) and Ephraim (No. 27 in 2014).

East coast IPAs would spread like a wildfire from that Vermont start, first to Maine and Maine Beer Company, who had Dinner (No. 74 in 2014) and Lunch (No. 115 in 2014), onto Massachusetts, which gave us the IPA maestros at Tree House Brewing (est. 2012) and Trillium Brewing (2013). Philadelphia got into fray with Tired Hands in 2012, and Brooklyn got its own cult IPA producer, Other Half, in 2014.

Aslin, The Veil, Bissell Brothers, Foundation, Grimm, SingleCut—these were east coast breweries that made IPAs for people who “hated IPAs.” Their beers didn’t smell like a car’s dangling air freshener; they weren’t teeth-chatteringly bitter either. They were as drinkable as OJ. Suddenly, the west coast-style IPA seemed a whole lot less interesting. In July of 2014, there were exactly 24 west coast and 24 east coast IPAs on the top 250. That was the last time it would even be close. Today’s top 250 shows a whopping 59 of its IPAs residing on the east coast, and a mere 10 from the west coast.

While less than a decade ago, calling an IPA “east coast” was an insult, today it is a matter of course for breweries looking to make their mark with the style. Great Notion (Portland), Monkish (Los Angeles), 18th Street (Chicagoland) Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Co. (Fresno) and many more non-east coast IPAs label their cans, bluntly, “hazy, juicy, NE style.” Even long-time San Diego stalwarts have had to “east coast-ify” their long-standing IPAs. Ballast Point, an archetype of west coast-style IPA, recently released Sculpin Unfiltered. They advertised it as being classic Sculpin “with a slight haze and less bitterness,” but they could have just as easily called it “East Coast.”

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