Craft beer is at a turning point, past the boom days of novelty and wonder but not quite yet to the equilibrium of a fully established industry. Craft breweries, even those that have done very well, are fragile entities in a delicate ecosystem. They have managed to wound the transcontinental beer giants, no small feat, but Big Beer has responded by both joining the game with its own craft-style brands and by snatching up actual craft breweries, such as Cartman’s Trapper Keeper.
Several giant conglomerates now have a foothold in our precious Southern California scene, with AB InBev’s purchase of Golden Road, the former SABMiller’s purchase of St. Archer and Constellation Beverage Group’s purchase of Ballast Point last year. Ballast Point in particular has captured the zeitgeist with its Sculpin IPA and a variety of fruited variants thereof, most notably the grapefruit and habanero versions.
The Sculpin beers are tremendously popular, with a big, interesting flavor profile, attractive packaging and regular availability everywhere from grocery stores to craft bottle shops and specialty beer bars. They're a staple of upscale BBQs, house parties and tailgates, the kind of six-pack that projects sophistication while staying both exciting and accessible. The classic Sculpin was a foundational West Coast IPA, a palate-expanding beer for a generation of young hopheads. The fruited versions have only made it more important to the Southern California beer scene and, with the expanded reach that Constellation affords, Sculpin has become a nationally relevant label, too.
But it appears that the Sculpin series and Ballast Point’s gleaming new Long Beach facility have drawn attention of another kind, too, from highly regarded, beloved and fiercely independent brewery Beachwood BBQ and Brewing. Beachwood recently released a line of IPAs, part of its first wave of 12-ounce bottles, called the Invasive Species series. The beers come in a mixed four-pack, with one each of a regular IPA, a grapefruit IPA, a habanero IPA and a mango IPA, each of which mimics a variety of Sculpin. And just in case it wasn’t clear, the slogan on the cardboard container is “It matters who makes your beer,” and the logo on each label is a cartoonish fish skeleton, a clear echo of the fish that graces each Ballast Point beer.
Beachwood owner Gabe Gordon doesn’t mince words about the intent of the Invasive Species series. “The point is that everyone is making good beer,” he wrote in an email exchange. “Invasive Species was meant to show that there are a lot of beers as good or better than Sculpin, so try them once in a while and feel good knowing that you are supporting an independent small business.”
And how do the Invasive Species beers stack up? They are predictably outstanding, bright and sharp as a West Coast IPA should be, with an extra blast of flavor from the fruity additions. Those are particularly well integrated, as you might expect from a brewery that has done a whole lot of fruit-based experimentation at its sour Blendery offshoot. According to Gordon, the habanero version in particular benefited from the techniques learned at the Blendery; it gently burns the back of your throat with capsaicin but doesn’t scorch your palate. The grapefruit and mango versions are similarly great, not quite so fruity as Sculpin but a bit more subtle.
The base beer is excellent, too, an unmistakably Beachwood IPA, exactly 7.1% alcohol and 99+ IBUs with very minimal malt character. It is perhaps less balanced than Ballast Point’s Sculpin but it is a little zippier, and packs a bit more punch. Beachwood makes outstanding IPAs, and this series is no exception. They're calling it a special release for now, but it's clear that the statement Beachwood is making, and the feelings behind it, aren't going anywhere.
It’s a time of change in the beer world, but no matter your feelings on corporate buyouts, infusions of capital or the shape of the beer industry, one thing is for sure: As the label says, it matters who makes your beer.