Celebrating 30 years of Harpoon IPA

Beer

The recipe hasn’t changed in 30 years.

Harpoon IPA
Harpoon IPA Courtesy

For as long as a lot of us can remember, ordering an IPA at a Boston-area bar usually meant you wanted and/or were getting a Harpoon.

This summer marked 30 years since Harpoon became the eponymous India Pale Ale brand in Boston, and for reasons we’ll get into, it’s a milestone that seems especially poignant today.

“We were the first craft IPA on the East Coast,” says Dan Kenary, Harpoon’s co-founder and CEO. “We started with education, because back then the consumer didn’t know what we were talking about. So we’d tell the story about the British troops in India, hops, and the higher alcohol content used to preserve the beer during shipping.”

When Harpoon burst onto the scene with its IPA in 1993, there were similar beers on the West Coast and in England, but the New England region was not yet known for the style. Today, of course, the New England-style IPA has taken on an entirely different meaning, defined by beers like Vermont’s Heady Topper and juicy offerings from Massachusetts breweries like Trillium and Tree House. Despite these changes in the marketplace, and maybe also now because of them, Harpoon’s branding has stood the test of time. The original IPA is still a company best-seller.

How does a 30-year-old beer remain popular? Kenary points to its simplicity, which is made even more stark as IPAs have exploded in popularity in the last decade-plus.

“We love the style because it’s so beautifully balanced and showcases the four ingredients of beer (water, hops, yeast, and barley) in such a wonderful way,” says Kenary.

Styled after an English IPA, Harpoon IPA is brewed with American hops, giving us one of the earlier examples of a style the country would come to love. The recipe hasn’t changed in 30 years, Harpoon says: Cascade, apollo, and chinook hops provide the bite, while Harpoon’s proprietary house yeast adds some fruity esters. At 6 percent alcohol by volume, it’s a big enough beer to matter but not so big that it overwhelms.

Last year, Mass Bay Brewing Company, which includes Harpoon, concluded the purchase of Vermont brewery Long Trail. Kenary points to Long Trail Ale as being similar to Harpoon IPA in terms of staying power.

“They’re not the shiny penny in the drawer, potentially. But people get kind of a comfort in going to places and seeing these beers that have been around for a while,” says Kenary. In the rush to make beers hoppier, heavier, and higher in alcohol, Kenary says, “Sometimes people rush by some real gems.”

My own relationship with Harpoon IPA has evolved over time. Early in my beer writing days, I remember a Harpoon PR rep asking what I thought of Harpoon IPA, and me being a little dismissive as I talked about some hop monstrosity from Colorado. As my palate became fatigued by aggressive, and now overly sweet, IPAs, I’ve come back around to classics like Harpoon IPA as the kind of beer I go out of my way to drink.

“There’s a reason why people want these beers,” says Kenary. “And why they have stuck around as long as they have.”

Harpoon is running a special “golden can” promotion for its IPA soon. From Oct. 15 to Dec. 1, customers who find a golden can in a Harpoon IPA 12-pack can win a holiday party for up to 30 people at one of the brewery’s tap rooms, as well as other prizes.


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