Are You Tasting the Pith? - 8th September 07
As you might expect, the recent trip over the pond has taken it's toll on the taste buds. I love American IPA (American India Pale Ale? We'll gloss over that anomaly for now), and on our recent sojourn, I tried to drink the style as widely as possible, in the hope of making sense of the American interpretation of the style. What is it with this style? Is it overcompensating for lack of finesse? The idea of "bigger is better" writ large? Or are there just too many hops in America, and they need to be used up somehow?
Drinking around New York City, there were lots of AIPAs available on draught. Bear Republic Racer 5 (from Healdsburg, California) is as typical example as you might find; a classic bittersweet marmalade nose, spicy, pithy orange peel flavour, and an almost oily finish. It's big, it's probably quite strong (these beers tends to be around 7% abv), but it has great balance, meaning that an American pint disappears quickly over conversation. By contrast, draught Stone Brewing Co.'s IPA is a bit bigger, a bit more brutal, and has a slightly dirty, feral quality that I associate with Willamette hops; drinkable, but a little pungent, although having a lovely orange cordial note in the finish. Smuttynose IPA is a little cleaner; bright, spritzy, and crisply bitter finish. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA is a corker; scouringly bittersweet, medicinal and profound. It's great, but more than a small glass of it, and you'll have to take a break to let your taste buds recover.
Moving further afield, out of the city and into bottled beer territory, Stone Brewing Co.'s bottled offerings are more extreme again. Ruination IPA is a fairly devastating blast of hop hooliganism, a fact gleefully celebrated on the back label: "So called because of the immediate ruinous effect on your palate...a liquid poem to the glory of the hop....paganism at it's best" - you get the idea, but nothing can prepare you for the onslaught. Their Arrogant Bastard ale has a similar effect, with a similarly enjoyable disregard for the niceties of ettiquette.
More refined examples from breweries upstate include IPA from Saranac, Harpoon and Southern Tier. These are perhaps a little more recognisable as the copper-coloured, drinkably bittersweet but refreshing and moreish ale that is known as American IPA. That's not to say they're more enjoyable; it just means that you can drink a few of them without needing to alternate each sip with mouthfuls of water, as I saw plenty of people doing in bars in New York City. I guess it's a way of making sure that you stay hydrated while you drink.
Are they all the same sort of thing? Are there no exceptions to the rule? Well, I managed to find a couple. Sly Fox IPA, sampled at dba in New York City, was a sweet, slightly smoky, whiskyish take on the style. Looking at their website, I realise that they make a series of IPAs, all celebrating different hop varieties, and I've no idea which I had. This had a nice balance, the malt sweetness giving another dimension to the beer. At the other extreme, Kelso Hop Lager had a firm, nutty, malty body, and an almost austere dryness to its hop finish. Brewer Kelly Taylor makes a virtue of his unusual styles, and this crisp, hoppy but not over the top lager is his riposte to the obsession with IPAs.
So what have I learnt? On one hand, when I drink something as over the top as Ruination IPA, or Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, I think "GAH! This is absurd, filthy, braggadocious, and it's ruining my palate!". But at the same time, there's a little monkey-lizard part of my brain that just goes "PHWOAR! YEAAHHH!". It's fun to drink, in the same way that a hot curry, or a stinky cheese, is to eat. It's a bit like having a really noisy motorbike, or a particularly ugly Hawaiian shirt; you know it's a bit naughty, but you just can't help yourself. And of course, you should make a point of trying everything once, (with the usual caveats on incest and folk-dancing)
Just don't call it "double IPA", OK?
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