Of Course I Love IPAs
A micro-memoir and record-straightener.
In or around 1993 I brewed my first IPA. The then pre-professor and I were peon grad students living in the beer barrens of Madison, Wisconsin. He was many years away from a PhD, and I was a year or two from ending my quest for same. We were in our mid-twenties, with season tickets to the Badgers’ first Rose Bowl season since 1962 (student cost: $36), and a homesickness for the kind of beers we could not find in the shadow of the country’s lager-brewing capital. Our only solace was Sierra Nevada Pale, which one could find there—but it wasn’t enough.
Somehow, we got the idea to make beer ourselves and visited the Wine and Hop Shop, a homebrew store on State Street. There a very young man set us up with a kit for a couple hundred dollars that was so inadequate we’d never make anything beyond “barely-passable” on it. As he was assembling the kit, the young man went to a wall rack to pull off a packet of pellets (unrefrigerated) called “Willamette,” which he mispronounced. We weren’t familiar with the variety, but we corrected his pronunciation—and he was instantly magnetized by our provenance. Actual West Coasters who lived an hour from where the hops were grown! (They were almost certainly from Yakima, but none of us knew that at the time.) We instantly achieved an unearned status merely by the accident of our geography. It was a clue, though I didn’t realize it then, what role hops would one day play in American beer.
Homebrewers have always been ahead of the trends. In 1993, there were precious few IPAs on the market, and yet homebrewers were already deeply into brewing them. We made the beer from that first kit, a listless pale ale, and immediately wanted to boost the hops. The IPA was perhaps the fourth beer we brewed. I have no memory of how good it was, but anyway, I didn’t know anything about beer then. (Example: Patrick wanted to brew a “bitter,” owning to his matrilineal heritage, but we weren’t really sure what one was.)
A few years later, in 1996, I was back in Portland and driving a cab. My life plan at the time had grown somewhat opaque, but I was determined to finish a poetry chapbook and driving a cab was excellent grist for material. An ex-girlfriend was in town and we met for a beer before catching a movie at Cinema 21 (a venerable, indie art-house venue). Maureen had gone off to LA to become a filmmaker as I departed for Madison, and we were reconnecting. I have no idea what we saw or any memory of the day following that beer—but boy, do I remember it. We met at the now-defunct Gypsy across the street from the theater, and I received my first pint of BridgePort’s new IPA. It was revelatory, a beer saturated in aroma and flavor hops that was a decade ahead of any other beer.
My hops education took a nice bump when I started writing about beer for Willamette Week in 1997. I visited the Yakima hop fields for the first time in ‘98 and watched Bert Grant do a fresh-hop beer (his eponymous brewery was also in Yakima). All the while I continued to brew myself, and my recipe list was weighted heavily toward hoppy beers. I enjoyed later hoppy leaps forward, and hallmark beers like Ninkasi Believer, Boneyard RPM, and Breakside Wanderlust stud my memory.
None of this history is at all unusual. It describes the evolution of most American homebrewers. In fact, it mirrors exactly what was happening in the craft industry at the time (though preceding it by a few years at each step), and describes a magical, exceedingly rare cultural phenomenon I wouldn’t recognize for another decade or two.
When I got the contract to write the Beer Bible, I fancied myself an expert on beer. Expertish, anyway. I’d read extensively and bought every import I could find in Portland. It turned out I was woefully ignorant and frankly unqualified to write the book when I was hired (and too ignorant to realize what I didn’t know). Fortunately, traveling to Europe and visiting the world’s great breweries acted as the PhD I’d never finished, and by the time I wrote the book, I had learned much more.
The act of visiting breweries was transformational. Even as a writer I was still largely a fan, with all the biases and prejudices that implies. I loved Belgian beer, loved the idea of British beer, was wholly ignorant of Czech beer, and was embarrassingly disdainful of German beer. Standing with a brewer in a building where a style was invented or perfected has the capacity to clear away prejudice. It allows one to just listen and learn. In those encounters I met with each beer style’s greatest advocates and protectors, and I was able to snap into their frame of reference. These visits, cognitively dense but mostly theoretical, were augmented with days spent in pubs and beer halls drinking with people whose distant ancestors had preceded them on those same barstools. That provided the tactile, sensory, and emotional connective tissue the brewers’ description of mash rests could not convey.
The same thing happened at each stop along the way. Inside me was kindled a fan’s kind of love I had for my IPA’s back home. Seeing a beer from inside a cultural and brewing milieu was radically different than buying a 100-day old import and decanting it at home, alone and in the wrong glass. As a writer, I understood that my task, particularly in the Beer Bible, was to try to bring that experience as alive as can be done through words on a page.
Promoting the Unloved
When I returned from my travels, I realized something profound had been happening under my own nose. Travel revealed the way beer was a cultural product, one crafted purely as a reflection of the people drinking it. There’s no other way to account for the differences between Cologne and Brussels (distance: 130 miles) or similarity between Cologne and Munich (distance: 350 miles) than culture. Because the success of mass market lager has destroyed so much traditional brewing, we see these national traditions largely in the UK, Belgium, Czech Republic, and Germany. And the most recent of these to develop into a unique cultural phenomenon was 1842.
Until the hoppy brewing tradition that developed in the US.
My own beer life tracks its course perfectly, but I didn’t understand that we were witnessing the dawn of a new tradition until I grew to understand what traditions looked like elsewhere. The US is now in a moment of cultural ripening. We’ve found our voice, and it’s expressed through the flavors and aromas of hops bred and grown here. Choice, as many have noticed, is actually declining in America’s bars and taprooms. Where a taplist might have once had 18 handles and 15 different styles, now it may have just half devoted to beers outside the hops spectrum—or fewer.
As a writer, I’ve earned the reputation as a traditionalist. (Last week’s ode to cask ales probably didn’t help matters.) And indeed, I do discuss these styles more than other writers. I hope you understand a bit more about why, now: to me they are as dear and personal as the IPAs I was raised on. In an environment in which their numbers continue to dwindle, information gets rarer and rarer. The number of craft beer fans under 30 who’ve even tasted the European standards is far lower than it was when I was that age. Then we looked out to the world for inspiration; now we look to the latest new brewery around the corner.
So I write about these beers because being able to appreciate them, to understand the different brewing techniques and drinking traditions, is critical in understanding the breadth and scope of beer. Because the US is an immigrant nation, we will never developed the kind of total devotion to single stles or traditions you see in Cologne or Prague, but there’s a danger here, too. Now the “German pilsners” most young people have drunk were all brewed in America. I write about them because I want people to know where they come from and why they taste the way they do. There are tons of people discussing IPAs now. I can add to that chorus or try to bring something possibly unusual into the conversation.
For the record, though, I love IPAs. I don’t drink a majority of any single style, but I drink more hoppy American styles than any other. They’re in my blood more deeply and more natively than any other style. I don’t love them more than those styles I’ve exalted here, but hoppy American beers are more intuitive to me. When I’m brewing a beer outside the US tradition, I find it very difficult not to think about doing a whirlpool or dry-hop addition. A dry-hopped kölsch? Why not? It would startle and perhaps offend a brewer in Köln. It is absolutely not traditional and it arguably destroys what is essential in a kölsch. And yet, and yet. I am an American, after all. Wouldn’t a Belgian consider underpitching the yeast and doing a secondary fermentation? Of course they would.
I am an oldish man and so it’s not surprising some think I only have the capacity to look backward. People tell me all the time they assume I only like small beers or old-timey, traditional styles. It’s not true, though. Whenever something new crops up, like hazy IPAs or glitter beer, I will engage it the way I did helles and lambic in Bavaria and Brussels. And my love of IPAs is no less than it was in 1993 or 1996 or 2007—IPAs just no longer have exclusive claim to it. It is possible to love an old-timey European style and IPA all at once.
And when the next ________ -IPA comes along, I’ll be one of the first in line to try it.