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Sculpin Standout | How Ballast Point Crafted an IPA That Stands the Test of Time

Sculpin Standout | How Ballast Point Crafted an IPA That Stands the Test of Time
Taylor Laabs

I remember sitting on the patio of Ballast Point’s Little Italy taproom in San Diego a few years ago sipping on a fresh Grapefruit Sculpin. At the time, I marveled at how impressive that beer tasted – the combination of mellow bitterness and fruity overtones came together in perfect harmony. It was one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted, and it’s still a beer I weigh other fruited IPAs against. Introduced in 2005, Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA has become a pace setter in the American craft beer scene — especially for West Coast IPAs.

For many starting their orientation into craft in the past decade, a Sculpin IPA may have been their first introduction to Simcoe and Amarillo hops, and it set a standard for IPAs that is hard to match. With numerous variants, like Grapefruit and Habanero, along with a massive nationwide distribution footprint, thanks to their buy-out from Constellation Brands, Ballast Point’s hallmark IPA has stood the test of time amid spurious trends and an increasingly splintered consumer base. So, what happens next for the flagship brand that has amassed a coast-to-coast following? We asked Ballast Point’s Vice President & Specialty Brewer, Colby Chandler.

Finding the Perfect Balance

Sculpin is so appealing because it doesn’t try to do too much. The brewers at Ballast Point struck the perfect balance with their original Simcoe and Amarillo recipe over 13 years ago and haven’t strayed. The fresh, fruity aroma of the IPA leads into a dry, slightly bitter sip and crisp aftertaste. It’s not overly hopped or “cloyingly sweet” as Chandler puts it. Its balance makes it extremely approachable for new drinkers, which, after all, was Ballast Point’s intention.

“Balance has a lot to do with Sculpin IPA, along with its ability to cross many palates with bright aromas, flavors and clarity. Sculpin falls within the specs of an IPA but comes across as a much lighter style, which makes it a great gateway into other beers.”

Found in all 50 states and several international markets, the success of Sculpin is a testament to the hard work that Chandler and team put into making the IPA, and making it consistently taste the same. Many beer fans’ first worry when a craft brewer gets bought out is that quality will go down as it’s stretched across new markets, but that hasn’t been a problem for Ballast Point due to the brewing culture that has been in place since their origin.

We have a culture of quality – from selection of raw materials, brewing process to finished product and beyond,” said Chandler.  “Our Quality team is a big part of that, implementing over 300 quality checks for every batch of beer made. Sales and Marketing team also does a great job of telling our story and the unique attributes of our beer. Also, the beer doesn’t suck, so that helps.”

Going Beyond the Original

Trying to brew lighting in a bottle twice is always a pain point for brewers. You make a great beer that people love – how do you make them love a second iteration of it? For Ballast Point, expanding on the Sculpin brand was an easy next step. The approachable IPA made an easy base-level beer for adding new and complex flavors on top of it. First came Grapefruit, then iterations like Habanero and Pineapple, followed recently by Unfiltered and Aloha versions. According to Chandler, the six packaged iterations of the Sculpin family contribute to over 50% of their total beer production. Their appeal comes in their uniqueness as each offers craft beer drinkers a new flavor subset – some spicy, some sweet, and some clean. But there’s always room to grow and try out new ideas, which is why the relationship between their 10.8 gallon cask program and Little Italy taproom has been so valuable. The experimental program churns out new and daring versions of Sculpin, which are then tested on the more-than-eager drinking subjects found at their San Diego space. It’s how their Grapefruit version was born after generating rave reviews – from myself included. Their newer Aloha version is also showing great potential. Per Chandler, the newest Sculpin variant is “a great non-fruited version that gets all its juiciness from the Saccharomyces “Bruxellensis” Trois fermentation, which adds tropical mango, guava and pineapple flavor.”

Parent company Constellation Brands knows that it has something valuable in Sculpin. It’s an approachable brand for the everyday beer drinker and its many varieties can appeal to many different personality types. In 2017, Ballast Point rolled out their first ever ad campaign celebrating Sculpin’s 97 out of 100 score by Beer Advocate.

The campaign shows how much Constellation has invested in positioning Ballast Point and Sculpin as a “top 20 craft brand.” Coupled with nationwide availability across retail locations, it’s hard not to find some variant of Sculpin whether you’re in your local Whole Foods or bottle shop. Some will cry that the brand has become diluted as it widens its net, but Chandler isn’t worried because the recipe behind the beer is strong enough to withstand different market factors. “The different varieties of Sculpin are designed to punch out a particular flavor that exists within the original “beer flavored” Sculpin IPA. If you’re new to IPA’s, it’s also a good thing to realize you like the acidity of a grapefruit or pineapple but never associated it with the flavor and acidity that hops create in Sculpin IPA. If that gets someone into hops, we will take that all day.”

What Comes Next

Sculpin has won numerous awards and is widely considered one of the best IPAs that is nationally available. But it doesn’t define Ballast Point – and it shouldn’t. They make some other fantastic beers that are worthy of acclaim. Their Victory at Sea Imperial Porter remains one of my favorite purchases every Fall and their new Fathom IPA has already become their third best-selling beer, behind Sculpin and Grapefruit Sculpin of course. Chandler sees Sculpin as an introduction for many into the Ballast Point brand, which definitely seems like a good thing: “As San Diego natives, obviously we love our west-coast style IPAs, but we are proud of our entire portfolio—and if Sculpin IPA is someone’s first foray into our beers, they’re off to a good start and will hopefully enjoy it enough to try our other beers.”

It’s tough to tell if Sculpin will continue to grow its nationwide popularity, or if it might fall by the wayside like some of the other older IPA stalwarts. But it’s easy to see that Colby Chandler and his team have a solid plan in place for protecting Sculpin’s heritage and bringing the IPA to a new age of craft beer drinkers. I wouldn’t bet against them. Cheers!

Feature image credit: Ballast Point

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