NOTE: This was written for last year’s IPAday, but seems just as relevant for this year’s version. Enjoy!
An Opinion Piece
August 2nd is #IPADay (according to its Twitter hashtag), a self-proclaimed “toast to one of craft beer’s most iconic styles: the India Pale Ale.” For some reason, this struck a nerve with me and galvanized some thoughts that had been rattling around in my head for a while. Not so long ago, IPA was a style that was only a minor thread in the craft beer tapestry. It was a bigger, more aggressive brother to Pale Ale. It was a note in a symphony of porters, pales, ambers, stouts, goldens, and more.
Then, the IPA drinker became louder and louder as the IPAs became louder and louder. Alcohol began to increase as did IBUs (international bitterness units). What was once an orchestra playing in harmony while continuing to grow as a group became an obnoxious trumpet blaring as loud as it could, out of tune and out of tempo. (I feel very comfortable with this analogy having played Jazz and classical trumpet for many years and having witnessed the trumpet player’s propensity for obnoxiousness.)
I’ve come to the conclusion that #IPADay is actually a celebration of craft beers most ironic style. Craft beer was the cure for the homogenous and bland beer. I’m almost wondering if IPA is once again dragging the beer world to homogeneity and blandness. Now, before you reply that IPA is the exact opposite of bland, one of the definitions of bland is: lacking in special interest, liveliness, individuality, etc. (dictionary.com). If everyone has an IPA that tastes the same, how is it special?
The craft beer market is seeing a massive expansion of styles: Belgian-style IPAs, black IPAs, white IPAs, India Pale Lagers, double IPAs, IPA trippels, imperial IPAs, etc.. “Sto-oot? What kind of IPA is that?” “Excuse me, this Westmalle dubbel is bad…it’s a horrible dubbel IPA!” I’ve seen offerings from breweries become extremely narrow and homogenous: an IPA; imperial IPA; a high alcohol, hoppy red; and a pale ale. This is the actual year round lineup of one of the local, northwest breweries. I’ve tasted the seasonal offerings from another brewery; and if you lined them up with their flagship IPA, and tasted them blind, you couldn’t tell the difference between any of them.
What has led the craft beer world to this impasse? At first, it was innocent enough. People seeking new thrills came across something that shocked and excited their taste buds: an IPA. Those first IPAs were a beautiful slap to the palette. At the time, I eagerly awaited Sierra Nevada Celebration like any kid waiting for Santa to slide down the chimney. In fact, I still long for that first bottle of Celebration and it’s sexier wet-hopped sister, Northern Hemisphere Harvest.
The problem came with the arms race that followed. If an IPA with 5.6% ABV and 55 IBUs was good, why not one with 6% and 60 IBUs? What about 10% and 120 IBUs? Why not 13.3% and 2500 IBUs, as claimed by Flying Monkeys Alpha Fornication? 2500 IBUs?!?! That’s an actual IBU labeling on a real, commercially produced beer. I won’t call this a rating as that implies some sort of real number.
International Bittering Units, IBUs, is a measurement of the alpha acids that have been isomerized into solution. There are several interpretations of how to get to the number. There is the mathematic way which is derived by calculating the amount of alpha acid in the hops used, the quantity of hops and the boiling times. This is a pretty clean, pure number. The problem is that it’s pretty inaccurate.
Almost no brewery has the ability to obtain perfect extraction of hops. Further, the more IBUs the more extraction diminishes. It’s also hard to measure the actual IBU level without a sophisticated lab, which most smaller brewers don’t have. To compensate for these issues, most brewers use a simple shorthand to come up with a pretty close idea of what the actual IBUs are. They multiple the mathematical number by 5/7. So a mathematical IBU rating of 75 would give you a real world IBU of about 53. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that you just can’t extract much beyond a real rating of 110. It just becomes impossible to dissolve anymore alpha acids into the solution.
The other key factor in the IBU scam is the human palette itself. Most people have a threshold that goes from about 8 IBUs – 95 IBUs with a detection rate of about 6ish IBUs. This means that a beer that’s 33 IBUs will taste the same to you as a beer with 36 IBUs. You only can see a difference about every 5-8 IBUs. Well, if the human palette can only detect IBUs up to about 95, why make beers with more than this? Some people claim you can “feel” the added hops. My guess is this is correct as it dissolves the enamel off your teeth. So what real purpose is there to label a beer with 2500 IBUs or 200IBUs when in reality the real number, AT BEST, is going to be 110?
Pure and simple, it’s part of the American propensity to want to have things bigger and better than the neighbor. We want the monster trucks and 80″ TVs. We want a quadruple hamburger with 8 strips of bacon. We want to be able to say I brewed/drank a beer with a bajillion quatillion googleplexian IBUs. Americans still haven’t figured out that bigger isn’t always better. (Note: I am an American, born and raised. Not a cranky European ex-pat, which has its own charms.) What’s the reason for creating and labeling beers with 110+ IBUs? Simple, it’s label candy; porn for the IPA geek.
I spent a full day with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas talking about how beer can create more depth and variety of flavors than wine can because we have so many ingredients to brew with. Yet IPAs seek to focus on one ingredient only, the hop. It’s a wonderful ingredient both as a utilitarian improvement to beer quality and as a flavoring agent. But neo-IPAs are to the point of creating a world much like California red wines. Because of the popularity of this brash and one-dimensional wine style with certain loud critics, world producers are shifting their wines from their traditional complex and subtle varieties to make wines that will appeal to this narrow range of loud critics. IPA fans are turning the beer world into a one note world. There are so many other ingredients to play with to add depth and real character to beer. It takes 0 talent as a brewer to slam a ton of hops into a brew and call it an IPA. It was amazing during the hop shortage a few years back to see which brewers were actually talented. When you tried someone’s pale or ESB, you could see who actually had the chops to make GOOD beer, not just loud beer. When I drink a Belgian Dubbel and taste the interplay of a variety of malt with the esters and phenols of the yeast all balanced with the earthy/spicy European hops, I’m in beer heaven. When my palette is assaulted by a one dimensional IPA with no real character, I’m sad that I wasted my money.
IPAs can be beautiful and complex, but they can’t allow the hops to dominate everything else. Russian River Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig, Stone IPA, Sierra Celebration and some other IPAs understand what it means to be a well made IPA. They’re balanced in their own way with a nice malt character and some yeasty esters to round out the profile. But these aren’t the only beers in the world. Russian River Brewing has been very open about the fact that they don’t want to become “Pliny the Elder Brewery.” They continue to expand, but their space and money goes into increasing their barrel-aged sour program which is phenomenal. Yet these beers get little interest while “beer snobs” turn their noses up demanding Pliny the Elder. A one-note IPA is also a failed food item. You just can’t pair it well. It will dominate any food you pair it with and then render your palette numb so you get none of the nuances of your food.
I’m glad there are visionaries out there who are seeing beyond the IPA and creating beers that seek to create a more in-depth drinking and eating experience. The last few years have seen new styles of breweries opening up in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve seen a few that focus entirely on German styles, several Belgian inspired ones, and some focusing on wild yeast beers. These are the visionaries of the beer world. They’re creating beers using all of the tools available to brewers to create the next generation of amazing American craft beers. It doesn’t take a lot of brewing talent to make a hoppy beer. It takes a lot of talent to make a good hoppy beer; and a great deal more to create a balanced beer full of complexity and subtlety. In reality, #IPADay is every day. It doesn’t need to be celebrated. It doesn’t need to proclaim its dominance from the mountain top. You can’t avoid IPA’s dominance in the market. Why are we celebrating the all-pervasive, the everyday, the mundane? It goes back to the old adage: “If everyone is special, no one is special.”
(Thanks for reading my rant. I do want to give my hat’s off to the folks who put so much effort into #IPADay. They’ve successfully accomplished something. But the joy of the craft beer world, and the fun, is that we have an embarrassment of riches to drink and talk about. Let’s celebrate all the beers of quality. Enjoy them as friends and compatriots and end vigorous discussions with another round and a friendly handshake or hug. After all, we’re beer people, not cork dorks.)