It’s pretty much a fact of life, though, that sooner or later you get set in your ways. All that experimentation loses its fun and goddamit you just want to settle down with what you want to drink and holy hell what in GOD’S NAME are those idiotic kids chugging these days???
Handily, you can boil down many of the beer world’s evolutionary and generational changes – and divides – to one style: the India Pale Ale, which has enjoyed three prominent eras of popularity among drinkers.
The origins of IPA are widely told: It was originally a strong ale brewed in England to lubricate the colonizing troops of imperial India. As well as helping soldiers temporarily forget acts of genocide, the high alcohol content helped as a preservative so the beer would survive the long journey by sea — as did an imperial shit-ton of hops that had the added benefit of imparting a robust, flavourful bitterness. Rather fittingly, the original IPA fell out of favour as the British Empire waned in the 20th century, and became an obscurity during the dark decades of post-war mass-produced fizzy piss.
In the 1980s, the IPA was resurrected on the West Coast of North America as a vehicle for ever bolder expressions of native hops — both in terms of bitterness and flavour — led by the citrus and resin-redolent Cascade variety.
West Coast IPA became the poster-pint style of the craft beer revolution, spearheaded by Californian pioneers like Green Flash, Lagunitas, Russian River, Sierra Nevada and Stone, and leading to many popular derivations (double IPA, triple IPA, dark IPA, Belgian IPA) that made some brewers realize they could double sales of any beer by injecting it with hops and slapping those three letters on the can.
Perhaps it was that flippancy and “more hops or die” attitude that led to the end of the style’s long, popular reign at the hands of its relative from the other seaboard. The Northeast IPA may or may not have emerged in Vermont (there are likely entire sub-Reddits dedicated to the argument) but what is certain is that it’s come to dominate the craft beer market. Sweeter, denser, opaque and “juicy” with tropical fruit flavours from massive hop additions, what’s more widely known as “hazy IPA” is everywhere.
And this is where I go all Grandpa Simpson.
(Shouts at cloud:) I don’t like hazy IPA. It fails to hit several key expressions of a good beer. It’s sweet, thanks to all the hops being backloaded in the brewing process to maximize aroma and flavour. That means it’s not bitter, which is a vital part of beer’s refreshment factor. All that sweetness combined with the beer’s viscosity – often thanks to added oats, lactose or even flour – makes for a cloying pint. It’s just not satisfying. What’s more, there’s little diversity in the style. Flavour descriptors tend to go no further than “tropical fruit.” So far, so Palm Bay. Don’t even get me started on the sludgy atrocity that is “milkshake IPA”.
I get that hazy IPAs have become a gateway beer for many, and the style is actually keeping many breweries afloat. Some have built their entire business model around it, and all the better if independent brewers are keeping money out of ABInBev’s Scrooge McDuck-style vaults.
But a little something has been lost in the beer world with the sudden total domination of hazy IPA. Balance, mostly, along with the appreciation for beers that are built around at least four main ingredients instead of just (adopts hazebro voice) MOOOOORE HOOOOPPPPPPS.
Take a mouthful. I mean it. Don’t sip this sucker. Fill your mouth, get it around your tongue, in between your teeth, under your dentures.
That includes the majestic style that paved the way for the hazebros’ hop juice. While the West Coast IPA hasn’t quite gone the way of the English IPA last century, its popularity relative to what brewers are producing has plummeted. Thankfully, some are now revisiting the West Coast style, even pitching them as “old school” IPAs – because only in the craft beer world could a style that was all the rage three or four years ago become a subject of nostalgia.
Honestly, seeing new West Coast IPAs on the liquor store shelves has been like getting unexpected postcards from an old friend. And revisiting a good example of that style is like, well, sitting down for a beer with an old friend. So, pick up a six-pack, four-pack or even a bomber if they still come in that format, and take a step back in time to the days when IPAs were balanced beasts. For maximum effect, go for IPAs that showcase some, or all, of the original “C hops” that first characterized the style: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and Columbus.
Your choice: Pour it out into a tall glass to fully appreciate its glorious amber clarity and pillowy, bright white head; or go for a tulip glass to focus those fabulous hop aromas up your schnozzle. Fruit on the nose will almost certainly be citrus – lemon and grapefruit most likely – and there will also be deeper, spicier, earthier aromas: toasted pine needles, fir sap or resin, herbal hits and maybe even danker depths of cannabis. Those woodsy notes are key, offering the first sense of balance to the sweeter, tangy fruit aromas.
Take a mouthful. I mean it. Don’t sip this sucker. Fill your mouth, get it around your tongue, in between your teeth, under your dentures. You’ll get those brighter fruit hop notes up front before a sturdy malt profile develops. Yes, malt! That’s another thing hazy IPAs overlook, with their fruit salads built on flimsy grain profiles. In a West Coast IPA, the maltiness can range from crackery through toast to light caramel sweetness. It gives depth to the beer, chimes with the more herbal and woodsier notes in the back of the hop profile, and sets the stage for the grand finale: a thirst-quenching, drying bitterness that levels off the malt sweetness and cleans the palate, while leaving lingering notes of pine.
One more thing about the West Coast variant: it lives up to its name. The arguments for beer having terroir can be tenuous – yes, it can be expressed subtly in wild yeast, water profile and soil in which local grains are grown – but for me, terroir can be very simply found in those piney-fir needle notes of a West Coast IPA. I’ve been on warm, sunny hikes through the forests of British Columbia where I’ve suddenly had a taste echo of those flavours from smelling the sun-toasted bark of a Douglas fir or the scent of pine needles rising from the trail.
Tell me, what sense of terroir do you get from a northeast IPA? Aroma hints of the famous Vermont pineapple? Mouthfeel like a smoothie from a Burlington Dairy Queen? There’s just no geographical character to the style.
Do yourself a favour: don’t live life in a haze. Go West Coast, young man. (I know you grumpy old bastards are there already). The IPA as first developed in North America is big, bold, beautiful, refreshing and satisfying – everything a superb beer should be.