Image Credit: Emily Ragle
When I began this current run of weekly posts about six months ago, I decided to choose one of my favourite beer styles as the subject: India Pale Ale, its history and some of the myths and misinformation that have grown up around it. Today, August 2nd, IPA gets its own day of celebration. Twitter is already buzzing with the hashtag #IPADay (10,000 uses of the tag last year, apparently) giving us all plenty of notice on IPA-related events that might be happening in our locality.
The first IPA Day, around the same time last year, was dreamt up by The Beer Wench Ashley Routson and Ryan Ross of Karl Strauss Brewing in San Diego, and just like last year, bars all over the country will be tapping kegs and casks, some of them dry-hopped, some with other flavours and ingredients added, and if you're lucky, perhaps running some of it through a Randall.
American craft brewers have had a big role in reviving and popularising the IPA, as they have with one or two other styles such as porter. For a hop-forward beer, American hops with their powerful citrus and pine flavours seem tailor-made for the job if hop flavour and bitterness (and a hop-derived name such as Hopsickle, Hopslam, Tricerahops or Hop Stoopid) is all you look for, but there's much more to an IPA than lupulin. The bitterness should be balanced with a good dose of malt sweetness. Those 18th century proto-IPAs were unlikely to have been the kind of hop bombs we've come to associate with the style today, and modern English IPAs still reflect that in their hop character which, although still prominent, is far less pronounced than that of an American IPA, and their ABV is somewhat lower. In fact, at around 3.6%, Greene King IPA is weaker than most ordinary and best bitters, and a lot of British beer geeks wouldn't consider it to be an IPA at all.
In the past few years, 'best of' beer lists have become dominated by big beers - double IPAs, Belgian quadrupels and Russian Imperial Stouts mostly, leading to a small but significant backlash against the extremophiles who put them there and who perhaps, indirectly, have encouraged breweries to to push the flavour profile and ABV of some of their beers beyond what most of us would like to drink at a single sitting. Business always goes where the money is. As a way to end the evening's drinking, in the same way you might retire to the billiard room with a glass of Port and some friends (what... you don't do that?), a half pint of 11% RIS is quite pleasant, but if I'm drinking on my own, at home, a 22oz or 750ml bottle of intensely bitter DIPA is not only going to pretty much ruin my palate for the rest of the evening, I'll probably wake up on the sofa wondering where the last two or three hours have gone. But, oh lordy, they are pretty damn tasty, and every once in a while I have to crack open a bomber of Moylander.
The best IPAs? I'll leave that up to you. You know what you like. The best IPA you'll ever drink is probably brewed close to wherever you're drinking it, is less than a few weeks out of the fermenters, and if you can drink it at the brewery's own taproom you've pretty much hit the mother lode. I'll happily give praise to the likes of Stone Ruination, Avery Maharaja and Moylans Moylander, but a pint of Thirsty Planet Buckethead, Live Oak Liberation or Independence Stash has them beat if the keg was still at the brewery two days before being tapped at the bar where I'm drinking it.
And then there's Dogfish Head 120 Minute - a double IPA that some people age for years. We'll go there another time, I think.
Although still very partial to an IPA, I don't think I can honestly call myself a hophead any more because my palate seems to be craving malt-forward beers a lot more than it used to, and we're approaching one of my favourite times of the year in that respect, when the nights start drawing in and the first chill of autumn is felt on the wind (at least in some parts of the northern hemisphere, if not in Texas), bringing with it maltier styles such as Oktoberfestbier and seasonal beers like Sierra Nevada Tumbler, leaving the lighter, drier summer styles behind. Even so, of course, I'll still be heading off to a few local bars to get my fill of India Pale Ale today.
And as if IPA Day isn't enough, yesterday was also Yorkshire Day, which meant pulling a bottle of Sam Smith's out of the fridge. It's a tough life being a beer nerd.