A few years ago I was facing a minor dilemma. Most of the domestically-brewed dubbels I tried were just not cutting it. As a fledgling beer drinker, my introduction to Belgian beer was through Bornem Dubbel. I love Chimay Premiere, Maredsous 8, & other Belgian-born examples, but with the exception of Ommegang’s Abbey Ale, the American-brewed dubbels were consistently swinging & missing. Too husky, too boozy, too dry, too this or that – I was getting pessimistic. As any pedantic beer drinker is wont to do, I shared my struggle in an on-line forum. I got a few recommendations, most of which I tried, with similar letdown. But there were a lot of folks feeling my pain, who felt the same way about domestic tripels, quads, & other efforts at Belgian styles. Sure, there were some outliers, but they were more like the exceptions that prove the rule – the refrain became that if you want a good Belgian beer, get one from a Belgian brewery. I can’t tell you why this is – native water? native yeast? good old-fashioned know-how? – but it seems to be true more often than not.
This came as a shocker for me at the time – you mean the American craft beer massive, the great DIY melting pot of beer history & technique, has a blind spot? You mean US craft brewing is not all things to all people? It dawned on me that, in our post-modern have-it-all beer utopia, there is still such a thing as regional specialty, & some styles are just better from their indigenous homeland.
Another revelation came a few years before that while reading The Brewmaster’s Table
. Garrett Oliver catalogs styles across the western world, & pretty much every mention of an “Americanized” style boils down to higher hopping & bitterness. American pale ale, American stout, American barleywine, American brown, etc. etc. equate to “like the old world example, but hoppier”. Putting two & two together, I came to realize that this is America’s contribution to the international stage – hoppy –ass beer is American craft brew’s native tongue!
Sure, there are other indigenous American styles – steam beer, swanky, Pennsylvania porter, Kentucky common. None of those have taken hold & distinguished themselves the way American IPA (& at its roots, American pale ale) has, as the coat of arms for stateside craft brewing. American adjunct lager was created to emulate the old world, not necessarily to innovate. English craft beer is dominated by bitter, mild, porter, because that’s what they do best. German beer is all about lagers and wheats for the same reason. Belgian beer is all over the map, but it’s all distinctly Belgian in character. The old world is taking cues from the new now, which is cool, & I think American beer finding its identity is a good thing. As much as people bemoan the dominance of IPA on the scene, it’s popular & omnipresent for a reason – craft brewers are doing great things with hops, & more & more drinkers are being turned on to that.
IPA has shifted & grown over the years, as has the collective palate. What used to be synonymous with bitter pine & citrus pith has branched out into so many niches & flavors. Perusing my own tasting notes yields a plethora of descriptors: raw pine, peach, passion fruit, hard cheese rind, lemon cookie, grapefruit, orange peel, candied orange, lemon tea, floral, blue cheese, pineapple, mango, pitch, lemongrass, dill, fresh cut grass, cucumber, honeydew, fatty, ammonia, mint.
A few weeks ago I tried some of Roundabout’s IPAs & was amazed to find hints of coconut nestled in there. Brewers are using IPAs as a canvas for all that hops can express. And it’s not all about bitterness like it was five to ten years ago – the IBU race is a thing of the past, & drinking hoppy beers doesn’t have to feel like sucking on a pine cone any more. I’m thrilled that I can split a bottle of IPA with my wife without hearing that it tastes like shampoo & earwax.
This is American craft brewing’s language, like the breadth of peppers in Mexican cooking or spices in Indian cuisine (I wonder how many Indians complain about overuse of turmeric). As futile as it may be, I’ve voiced my dissatisfaction with the use of “IPA” to describe this family of beers – it’s transcended its historical origins & become what it is through modern domestic utilization. American ale would be a more fitting name, if you ask me, but that ship has sailed.
So once again, in observation of IPA Day (a moment of silence, please), I spill my head open about the reigning craft beer style. I recommend combing through the archives & checking out the other eight-ish posts on the topic. I guess, as much attention as it’s been given, I still find it fertile ground. It appears that, for now, craft brewers are not done mining this territory either. I’ll toast to that.