What’s the Deal with IPAs, Anyway?

Thomas Hartman, Innovation Brewer at ZX Ventures, sat down with us to chat about IPAs.

Photograph Courtesy of  The Muse

Photograph Courtesy of The Muse

Let’s talk about the history of IPAs to get started.

The IPA, or India Pale Ale, was one of the first real bastions of American craft beer. At its beginning, craft beer was a revolution against “big beer” and “lite beer.” IPAs allowed budding craft brewers to produce intense flavors in a light-colored beer instead of a traditional heavy stout. In a typical enthusiastic all-or-nothing fashion, the craft beer pendulum swung rapidly toward over-the-top bitterness.

What’s the flavor profile of an IPA? How do we get there?

Craft brewers seeking to highlight American ingredients—and to differentiate themselves from macro breweries—put as many hops and as much flavor in their beers as they could manage. (Note that while hops have distinct flavors besides bitterness, hops are the easiest way to enhance a brew’s bitterness.) These styles evolved over time to showcase the intense flavors of local and specialty ingredients. Using different hop varieties, adding hops at multiple brewing stages, experimenting with lupulin powder (purified resins and aromatics from hop flowers), and dry-hopping are all methods to enhance the hop flavor and bitterness of IPAs.

Speaking of bitterness: a beer’s bitterness is measured in International Bitterness Units, or IBUs. The higher the number, the more bitter the beer. It’s widely believed that most drinkers’ palates cannot differentiate bitterness beyond a certain point, somewhere around 80 IBUs. Therefore, an imperial or double IPA logging 100 IBUs is probably overachieving, delivering more bitterness than most drinkers will detect (much less appreciate).

How do you see the IPA trends evolving over time?

I’m really glad to hear that the trend in IPAs today is toward lower ABVs and lower IBUs—less bitter beers with a more balanced flavor profile. Another great development in IPAs focuses on local hops or single-hop varieties. I’m particularly excited about rotating-hop recipes. For these, a single beer recipe is produced repeatedly, each time using a single hop variety but changing that variety from batch to batch. Each time the recipe is reproduced and a new hop is cycled in, the variations in flavor and mouthfeel reflect the hop used. For instance, Cascade hops bring a floral, citrusy flavor, emphasizing grapefruit. The same recipe brewed with Mosaic hops will tend to be more tropical and floral, whereas a third cycle using Simcoe hops will have more of a piney flavor. New hop varieties are in development all over the world today, including some that are truly out there! Perhaps there’s a hop variety that will appeal more to you.

Believe it or not, there’s an IPA style to suit nearly every beer drinker. If you want to dive back in and give IPAs another try, look for session versions, which are lighter and more palatable (one session IPA I’ve really been enjoying lately is Blue Point’s Mosaic). Avoid the hoppier West Coast styles and especially anything described as an imperial, double, or triple IPA—these are the “bitter is better” styles with double-digit ABVs and extreme IBUs. Also, consider trying some regional IPAs or specialty styles. From cloudy New England IPAs to roasty black IPAs, where the hops are most evident in the finish, to fruity or flavored IPAs, there’s something for everyone.


Product Development From Start to Forever

Photograph courtesy of The Muse

Photograph courtesy of The Muse

By Stefanos Metaxas, ZX Ventures Global Product Manager

Giving customers what they want isn’t important just in tech, but in industries ranging from consumer goods to hospitality. Product managers must constantly innovate to surprise and satisfy their customers. But how do we actually develop those products from ideation to launch and beyond? The tech industry has created an excellent process for innovative product development, but it’s surprisingly rare to hear a straightforward and helpful description of it. That can be frustrating as a new product manager, when all you want is a step-by-step guide on how to get started.

Below is a high-level outline of what works best for my team at ZX Ventures. This cuts through the fluff often found in tech articles explaining product development.

Identify a hypothesis for a user problem. What problems are people having? I identify problems in a variety of ways. For example, I may have a personal frustration in my daily life that I’m sure other people share. Analyzing disruptable industries and their sticking points can suggest new approaches. To generate ideas, I’ve often interviewed prospective users about product frustrations in their personal or professional lives. One example might be that pet-owners want to know if there are any GMOs in the packaged foods they buy for their furry friends.

Test the user problem hypothesis. Is the problem we identified one that other people care about? I use a combination of continued interviews, larger surveys, analysis of existing market research and data, and a low-cost signup form or landing page to test customer response to my hypothesis. Based on the results, I either go back to step one and try again or continue with the product development. In our pet-owner example, I might post a questionnaire to online communities of pet owners and people in the pet food industry. I can also create a landing page with an email signup explaining what I want to develop and advertise that through Facebook to gauge interest.

Design the minimum viable product (MVP). What is the MVP that will fulfill the user problem I’ve identified? I assemble my entire team as well as trusted advisors to brainstorm features that together will solve the user problem. Our team uses Jeff Patton’s book, User Story Mapping, as a guide for product feature development. All stakeholders should walk away in agreement on what features the MVP will use to solve the user problem. In our example, that might include the ability to scan barcodes and view a warning if the product contains GMOs.

Kick off development sprints. Focusing their efforts in agreed-upon sprint periods (e.g., two weeks), developers work on the back end to support the features identified in the mapping exercise. The design team creates wireframes that lay out those features and surveys potential users for their input. They then develop the full user experience (UX) based on iterative feedback from potential users. Once the UX is working, the developers implement it, and the designers move on to the next features.

Launch, gather feedback, and repeat. As soon as the MVP is ready, we launch it and collect feedback about its functionality. We use feedback to constantly evolve and improve the product with new features and refinements. Before we introduce or update a product or a feature, we always make sure we have metrics in place to measure its success. That way, the development continues, and the product grows! In our example, it could start as a simple scanning app, but could soon become a platform to order non-GMO pet food online or even open physical stores one day.

This process has worked to keep my team at ZX Ventures continually innovating and creating products that meet real customer needs and solve real problems. I hope it helps you as well, regardless of the industry you work in.