Back in 1996, your average beer drinker might have guessed “IPA” was an abbreviation for the Independent Pilots Association, perhaps the Institute of Public Accuracy. The general public had not yet fallen for the bitter India Pale Ale that would come to define, and then dominate, the burgeoning craft beer scene.
As usual, though, Sam Calagione was already way ahead of the game. The owner of a new brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, Dogfish Head, he proposed making his company’s first ever hoppy beer, a fruited IPA, something that had heretofore never been attempted. Aprihop, as it was to be called, would have the bitterness of its Amarillo hops balanced by the fruity undertones of real pureed apricot.
“I remember distinctly taking shit for making it,” Calagione tells me. “I brought it to a beer dinner at the Brickskeller in D.C., got up on stage and talked about the beer in front of 100 beer lovers. A brewer/owner of another mid-Atlantic brewery got up after me to talk about his English Porter and started his talk with a memorably snide comment: ‘I believe fruit belongs in your salad and not in your beer.’”
Still, that didn’t deter him. By 2004, Aprihop was being bottled and today remains a signature spring seasonal release for the brewery. It was good, well-regarded by geeks and everyday drinkers alike, but it hadn’t really changed the beer world in any measurable way. Over a decade later, however, fruit IPAs are red hot (Dogfish Head even has a new one, Flesh & Blood, that came out this summer). And, you know what? I can’t stand most of them.
I’m generally amenable when it comes to current craft beer trends—the gose and Berliner weisse revolution, barrel-aging a go-go, hazy IPAs as thick as Italian dressing. Things become popular for a reason, and all those aforementioned stylistic offshoots are generally delicious. But I must admit to not really getting the fruit-infused IPA trend. You see, a modern IPA is already fruity, owing to today’s tropical hops like Citra, Mosaic and many others. Paradoxically, when real fruit is added to a beer, most of its sugar content (and, therefore, flavor) is eaten away by the yeast. Thus, you often get fruit IPAs that are less “fruity” than something like, say, Tree House Julius, a “regular” IPA that tastes like straight O.J.
One might assume that the fruit IPA is a training-wheels introduction to IPA, but these beers actually offer a ruder introduction to the style than most. The aroma of fruit tricks the mind into thinking that flavor and mellow sweetness carries over to the palate, but instead, it collides with the shock of hop bitterness. While in theory that might make for an interesting flavor journey for the already initiated, too often these IPAs feel disjointed—the fruit failing to fully integrate with the hop aromas and flavors. But that surely has not kept them from finding a following.
If your grocery store has stacks upon stacks of one beer nowadays, it’s probably a fruit-flavored IPA from Ballast Point. Improbably, beers like Watermelon Dorado, Mango Even Keel, and especially Grapefruit Sculpin, have become some of the best-selling craft beers in America, even if beer geeks aren’t all too jazzed about them. But lest we forget that just three years ago, they were. Back then, Grapefruit Sculpin was a tap-only offering, a limited release variant of the San Diego brewery’s top IPA that was reportedly made with hand-zested grapefruit peel. It was delicious, the fruit rind creating a citrus-y harmony with the hops.
Nowadays, six packs of it are for sale at my Duane Reade and the grapefruit flavor tastes artificial to me (in our blind tasting, the group guessed that it was “chocolate-covered cherry” flavored). I can’t abide it any more, much like I can’t wrap my head around the majority of the fruit IPAs I’ve tasted, most of which are made not with fresh fruits or zests like Dogfish Head and Ballast Point had once-employed, but with the omnibus “natural fruit flavors.” But I’m always willing to have my mind changed.
In order to see if there were any fruit IPAs actually worth seeking out on repeat, we blind-tasted 20 attempts at the style. For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Contributing Editor, Megan Krigbaum; Associate Editor, Lizzie Munro; and Editorial Assistant, Chloe Frechette. We came into it with an open mind, but the tasting did reinforce some of the issues we’ve all had with the style: too few beers felt harmonious in their integration of fruit and hops and too few actually tasted like the fruit they purported to be made with. But there were a few bright spots, like Schlafly’s bracing, juicy Grapefruit IPA and Tired Hands’ Watermelon Milkshake IPA, which makes you wonder why more brewers aren’t pairing fresh fruit with the hazy, juicy style of IPA now in vogue; when done well, it’s a natural fit.
Four Fruit IPAs to Try
Schlafly Grapefruit IPA | 5 percent ABV
This was Easily the favorite of the group, simply because it delivered the kind of refreshing drinkability that you’d hope for from a citrus IPA. High in acid, juicy and full of well-integrated fruit flavor (which is unmistakably grapefruit in this case), it offers pleasant herbal notes from the hops—a mix of Citra, Cascade and Chinook.
New Belgium Citradelic Tangerine IPA | 6 percent ABV
A “mystical marriage of tangerine peels and Citra hops,” as the brewery describes it, this is indeed mystical in the context of fruit IPAs. This isn’t a complex beer by any stretch, but it is well integrated, juicy, eminently drinkable and avoids the fake-fruit flavors to which so many of the beers seem to have fallen prey.
Tired Hands Milkshake IPA (Watermelon) | 7.2 percent ABV
One of the few beers in the tasting that sought to marry the hazy, lactic style of IPA now in fashion with fruit, this is firstly an excellent IPA that just so happens to show flavors of fresh-cut watermelon on the finish, adding to a beer that is already inherently juicy.
Stone Enjoy By Tangerine IPA | 9.4 percent ABV
The beast of the bunch (unsurprisingly), Stone’s Imperial IPA is high in alcohol, with ripe tangerine flavors approaching marmalade, its sweetness balanced out by fresh hop aromas and bracing bitterness. This is not for the faint of heart, but is an excellent example of fruit well-integrated into this style.