Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The IPA's remarkable ascendance

As we all know, India Pale Ales have become hugely popular in the modern craft beer world. Nearly every craft brewery makes one, and hopheads pant at the notion of a newer, bigger IPA.

Last year, the IPA was the most-entered category among brewers at the Great American Beer Festival.

IPAs are characterized by their strong alcohol content and aggressive hopping. Most IPAs fall in between 6 to 8 percent ABV and 60 to 80 IBUs. They taste bitter.

Locally, when Ska Brewing Co. decided to add a beer this year to its year-round lineup, it chose an IPA. Ever since, Ska has been selling the heck out of Modus Hoperandi. It seems Thibodeau and co. made a savvy business decision.

What to make of this popularity? Perhaps it's simply the search for something different. Nothing provides as great a departure from industrial lagers like Budweiser than a hoppy, craft-brewed IPA like Modus.

The strong alcohol content also probably plays a role. People like big beers.

Locally, the offerings are fairly diverse. A drinker can find Cascade Canyon Cask IPA and Monkeywrenched IPA at Carver Brewing Co. Ska has Modus Hoperandi on tap, and every liquor store in town carries it. Steamworks offers Conductor Imperial IPA, a huge hop bomb at 9.2 percent ABV and 82 IBUs.

In bottles, Durango shelves offer a wealth of variety, from Russian River's Pliny the Elder to Avery's IPA. Avery also has its massive 10 percent ABV, 102 IBUs, Maharaja Imperial IPA.

Lately, my favorite IPAs have been Avery's IPA and Russian River's Blind Pig. They carry a hop bite with pleasant balance.

I've warmed to IPAs, but I doubt it will ever be my favorite style. I would rather sip a Belgian-inspired brew like Brewery Ommegang's Hennepin or Avery's White Rascal. But some beer drinkers primarily drink IPAs, worship the biggest and crave that hop bite. I won't begrudge them that.

Sometimes, I wonder if beers like Conductor and Maharaja have more to do with ego - the brewer's and the drinker's - than taste. I find anything over 80 IBUs very hard to drink.

Those very "imperial" IPAs contrast with my favorites. While I was in Oregon a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the balance exhibited in many of the local IPAs, such as Terminal Gravity IPA. Sometimes, more bitter isn't better.

Where do we go from here? It seems impossible to stuff more hops into a bottle than Steamworks has done with Conductor or Avery has done with Maharaja. Even if it could be done, what would be the point?

Will we see a regression toward balance, toward IPAs like the aforementioned Cascade Canyon and Terminal Gravity?

I hope so. Once you've been to the moon, there's nothing left to do but settle back to Earth.

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