You Don’t Hate IPAs, You Just Think You Do

The IPA, a generously hopped style of pale ale that has become synonymous with craft beer, has become the the whipping boy of many who are still scarred by the "bitter is better" era of craft brewing. But IPA as a style has never been more diverse. Aaron Goldfarb on why IPA haters don't actually hate IPA.

In 2013, Slate published a story by Adrienne So entitled, “Against Hoppy Beer.” Like many of the other reductive craft beer stories that have appeared in the national media over the years, beer nerds were poised to dismiss it. But then a funny thing happened: The article went viral.

Sure, the piece hinged on dubious claims like, “We’re so addicted to hops that we don’t even notice them anymore” and “beers overloaded with hops are a pointless gimmick,” as well as a clear lack of understanding brewing techniques. “Hops are a quick way for beginning brewers to disguise flaws in their beer, by using the hops’ strong flavor to overcome any possible off tastes,” the piece protests. “Do you regret throwing those juniper twigs in the boil? Did you forget to sterilize a piece of equipment and are now fretting about bacteria? Quick! Hops to the rescue!”

Still, it struck a nerve. A sampling from the comments section revealed an overwhelming majority in agreement with her premise: “I’m just glad this stupid hop fad is finally fading. Let’s get back to normal beer, shall we?,” read one. “Hops have become to beer what peppers have to spicy food. An arms race to the most extreme point where it’s about being able to survive the product, not enjoy it,” wrote another. And finally, an impossible request: “Give me a beer without a drop of hops in it!”

The article lived on my social media feeds for days, and at the time of this writing, it’s been shared on Facebook some 324,000 times. After it ran, I started paying closer attention to how people ordered beer and I was shocked by how many times I heard someone say, “I don’t like ‘hoppy’ beer,” as a means to explain their taste preferences. What’s more, these were often well-informed diners and drinkers who knew about wine, cocktails and craft beer. But over and over again there was one thing many of them absolutely refused to drink: India Pale Ale.

In simple terms, “IPA” has come to mean a generously hopped pale ale that demands to be drunk fresh. But even though hops are by definition a bittering agent to keep beer from being too cloying, it doesn’t necessarily mean all hoppy beers taste bitter. But I suspect that it’s bitter beer that So was actually railing against.

According to current Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele, “There was a period where putting 300 IBUs into a beer was the thing. Now, brewers are exploring more nuanced ways to use hops.” With the ever-expanding number of hops varieties and, thus, expressions of IPA on the market, the once-ubiquitous “MOAR BITTER!!!” battle cry of the IPA has been a thing of the past for at least the last half-decade.

Truth is, her stance would’ve been more defensible back in the aughts when there was indeed an arms race to brew the bitterest of “hop bombs.” This era kicked off in earnest in the summer of 2002, when California’s Stone Brewing Co. bottled their first double IPA. That beer, Ruination, was so loaded with certain strains of hops that its bitterness was literally considered “ruinous” to a drinker’s palate. The coming years would bring more painfully bitter beers, many with provocative names like Palate Wrecker and Tongue Buckler. By 2010 we’d reached peak bitter with Mikkeller 1000 IBU, supposedly the bitterest IPA ever produced. (IBU stands for International Bitterness Units, a mostly theoretical metric. Typical IPAs are said to reside around 75-100 IBUs.)

According to current Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele, “There was a period where putting 300 IBUs into a beer was the thing. Now, brewers are exploring more nuanced ways to use hops.” With the ever-expanding number of hops varieties and, thus, expressions of IPA on the market, the once-ubiquitous “MOAR BITTER!!!” battle cry of the IPA has been a thing of the past for at least the last half-decade.

Saying you don’t like “hoppy” beer nowadays is like saying you don’t like “grape-y” wine. Hops is one of four integral ingredients in beer, and surely the most prominent one in most modern American craft beers. But they don’t just taste like one thing. Today, Hopunion, one of the world’s largest suppliers of commercial hops, offers over 120 different varieties. Some are exclusively used for bittering purposes, but the majority are used to add unique flavors and aromas. These can run the gamut from tropical and citrusy to herbal to earthy, with countless flavors in between.

Still, the fallout from the “bitter is better” era is still pervasive in the minds of most drinkers. In fact, just last week I was drinking at Hell’s Kitchen’s Pony Bar with a fellow writer friend who enjoys everything from sour Belgian lambics to sherry, but claimed to not like IPAs. I was certain that, for someone who cared so much about flavor, there was no way this was actually true.

I asked her if she liked freshly-squeezed orange juice. (Of course.) I encouraged her to order Threes Brewing’s Unreliable Narrator. Threes popped up in my Brooklyn neighborhood in late 2014 and I’d recently tried the IPA at their Gowanus brewpub. I was floored by how crushable it was, packed with pure aromas and flavors of oranges, mangos and peaches. She took a hesitant sip, expecting a bitter blast—the sort that fueled an entire Keystone Light ad campaign in the mid-1990s. Instead, a smile came across her face. She liked it.

After finishing that beer, we played another game. I asked if she liked the smell of just-picked flowers and herbs. Again, she said yes. Feeling more confident, I ordered her a glass of Alpine Duet. Alpine Beer Company is, for my money, the West Coast’s finest IPA-producing brewery. Duet is one of their flagship IPAs, made with Amarillo and Simcoe hops, which both lend a distinct florality to the aroma and flavor of Duet. The beer is bitter, but unlike those aforementioned beers with cheeky names, not bracingly so. She took a more aggressive sip this time, but now seemed confused.

“Maybe I…don’t hate IPAs?”

I’m now of the belief that most IPA haters don’t truly hate the IPAs of today. Back in the 1990s literally any craft beer would have seemed bitter to a Keystone Light drinker (and before you ask, yes, even light, factory lagers have some hops in them) and it’s true that into the aughts there weren’t exactly a diverse range of hoppy beers. But now great IPAs encompass a wide berth of flavors and aromas—even weights and textures.

If, for example, you’re the more traditional aughties-bred IPA drinker, there are Chinook or Columbus hops. Both are notable for that dank, resin-y, marijuana-like aroma and flavor prevalent in such IPAs as Lawson’s Finest Chinooker’d and Hill Farmstead Harlan. Along with Cascade and Centennial, these are some of America’s oldest and most common hop varieties. Thus, these are likely the hops most neophytes encountered when they swore off to anything “hoppy” forever.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, are beers like the Unreliable Narrator, which uses Citra, Centennial and Chinook to get that great fruit juice taste. Also within in this lighter, citrusy profile is the more tropical Galaxy and Zythos hops and the lemony Sorachi Ace. And between these more nuanced hop varieties and the famous “C”-hops (Chinook, Columbus, Cascade and Centennial), there is everything from the flowery Crystal to the earthy Willamette to the herbal Zeus.

To add to the ever-expanding spectrum of flavor expressions that now fall under the umbrella of “IPA,” there are also a number of “microstyles” popping up, too. The Session IPA is perhaps the hottest style of the moment, which is often just as fragrant as your full-blown IPA, but is lower in ABV, lighter in body and often devoid of a sharp bitterness. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are now white IPAs, wheat IPAs, rye IPAs, red IPAs, sour IPAs, coffee IPAs (really) and India Pale Lagers, plus a slew of more oddball IPA spinoffs that beer writer Brian Yaeger categorized as “India Silly Ales.”

As if we need more proof that IPAs aren’t what they used to be, last month Stone Brewing announced that Ruination—that beer once so bitter it “ruined” palates—was being taken off the market. Now too bitter and one-note when placed in context of the diverse (and generally more refined) IPAs of today, consumers had slowly stopped buying it. Even Stone has perhaps come to understand what today’s costumer wants, releasing a slew of complex and off-beat IPAs in the past few years such as the fruity Go To IPA, the lemon-y Delicious IPA and a green-tea infused IPA.

“It takes a prohibitively massive ego, a stymied lack of vision, laziness, ignorance and/or delusion,” wrote the brewery’s communications specialist Brandon Hernández, speaking of Ruination, “to create something and expect it to remain an exemplar until the end of time.”