IPAs Revisited. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Hop.
IPAs, India Pale Ales. No beer elicits as intense a reaction as they do. Every fan has their own top ten list of favorites, and every non believer generally shudders at the thought of a single sip. The mere mention of an IPA, or of the consensus first descriptive term most anyone will use to describe one – as “hoppy” – and just watch how faces curl up, generating facial contortions worth of posting on You Tube. Tied more closely to hops than perhaps any other beer, they are probably the most misunderstood beer out there as well, an side effect of the hop’s unfortunate, and partially incorrect, reputation as a component of beer that adds only bitterness. True, IPAs are indebted to hops for much of their trademark taste, a result of the conscious overuse of the hops’ built in preservative qualities while the beer was being shipped by 19th century English brewers to colonies in India and elsewhere. And true, the most basic function hops have is to balance out what would otherwise be dominated by the other primary ingredient, the kilned malt, or barley in the beer. Yes, this balancing act is carried out by the bitter flavor hops impart to beer, as you’ve probably read before. Here, of course, is where the grand misunderstanding starts. The equation usually goes like this: a high level of hops, or a “hoppy” beer, equals bitterness, and bitterness equals, well, for most folks, something bad.
Now many brewers and beer lovers will practically beg you to re-think that equation. Think back to some of your middle school science classes. Long term benefits of exploding beakers aside, there is something we learned that we can use, and my goodness, it even ties into beer. Remember learning that your mouth can only pick out five basic “tastes”? Those would be of course, sweet, sour, salty, a savory component, and the fifth – it’s all coming back now, right? It’s bitter. Why would you then, as these heroes of our taste buds would say, want to ignore one fifth of your total ability to taste something? If your mouth can only really taste these five major components, why take one of them away, even if it is bitterness?
Still not sold on the idea, are you. The stigma surrounding bitterness as something to be avoided can be difficult to overcome. A good thing, then, that hops provide so much more to beer. Within those little hop cones reside oils that give beer so much more than their better known bittering effect. It’s actually quite a shame that the hop gets such a bad rap, because their capabilities range far beyond that. Different varieties of hops give brewers an entire spectrum of flavors to work with, many of which are citrus like. Think oranges, even mangoes, or other “tropical” fruit like flavors. Sometimes beers such as these can seem to be some amazing combination of all of the above. Pine like, tobacco like, and other flavors that can only be described as “hop oil” like, which is, to me, a raw combination of the others, are also common. Oh, and not to mention how these hops give beers like IPAs some of the most wonderful aromas as well – ones that run parallel to the flavors and can add so much to the enjoyment of the beer. All these aromas, and their accompanying flavors, in various combinations and in varying degrees of intensity, are there waiting for the beer curious person brave enough to move beyond just bitterness.
Oh, and how things can change once you get past that. An acquired taste for most folks to be sure, but once acquired, it can be very difficult to look back. Beers such as IPAs tend to give one an even newer appreciation for well made beer, regardless of where their tastes lay before. A fascination develops over just how such flavors can be coaxed from such an seemingly innocuous little plant, and the soon the adventure to try more IPAs to taste differences from one to the next is on. Chances are, once you get past the bitterness, your own top ten list of favorites isn’t far behind. Not to mention that coming to appreciate a “hopped” up beer like most IPAs are is somewhat of a rite of passage for some. Sort of like some adult scout beer badge, but instead of figuring out how to rub sticks together to start a fire, you’ve survived an IPA with a rating of 90+ IBUs (International Bitterness Units). Wilderness survival tactics sound useful, but I’ll take the beer. Eventually, you won’t wonder why anyone might want to be called a hophead, you may proudly go by the name yourself. Oh, and your previously scrunched up face? Once a favorite or two are found, and poured into your glass, it’ll soon turn into a look of absolute pleased satisfaction, tasting even better from the fact that you earned it.