It’s been a few years and a few blogs since I’ve contributed to The Session, a roundup of writers expounding on a shared beer topic of the month. The eminent Jay Brooks is the keeper of the flame and his blog, the Brookston Beer Bulletin is the home of The Session topics. Be sure to browse through some of the old ones, there’s some good writing out there.
This month Alec Latham hosts the roundup on his blog Mostly About Beer, and he asks us to:
…write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to.
When I read this I instantly thought of college. In my admittedly brief stint with higher education I was exposed to the beginning of the craft beer movement, albeit in a roundabout and less than legal way. Being under-aged our options were fraught with peril: a trip to the packie was dancing with the law. Also the ID that a friend (designated the Beer Guy due to his relatively older looking appearance) used was, let’s just say, dubious.
So in order to arouse even less suspicion we chose beers that no self-respecting college freshman would dare to approach. Our logic stated that no one would look twice at someone buying a 12 pack of expensive beer, that we would appear as connoisseurs and men of taste and not, as we were in reality, a bunch of kids trying to get a buzz on in their (dry) dorm on a Thursday night. If a young looking man walked to the counter with a couple of Natty Light 30 racks under his arms, the alarm would sound instantly. But if this young man walked up to said counter with a demure 12 pack of imported fine ale, the cashier might not look too closely at that “ID.”
So our purchases ran the gamut from imported Belgian white ale (the kind with the funny foreign words, not Blue Moon), Guinness Draught (the widget was amazing alchemy at the time), Bass, and most notably, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
It was this last one that made the impression on us all. The Guinness and the Weissbier were weird and different, and we tolerated them with the knowledge that indeed, they contained alcohol. But they were seen almost as a means to an end. The Sierra Nevada was, in a word, gross.
The bitterness, the bracing sharp citrus, the malty, grainy flavors, and did I mention bitterness? Because bitterness. Unflinching, unapologetic bitterness. It was thought that the unpalatability of this beer meant it was somehow more potent, like how whiskey tasted like sour burning vanilla shit, but it got you wasted. So we drank it. And got more. And more. And then, something happened.
I stopped hating it. I don’t remember exactly when this was, but one night after grabbing one from the mini-fridge next to my friends computer desk and popping the top with a lighter (a skill we had to master early, because bottle openers were akin to marijuana paraphernalia), my face didn’t contort into pain. My stomach, that until this point had braced itself against the acidic burn of the IBUs of those Cascade hops, leaned back and accepted it’s fate. I tasted the beer. And I liked it. I wanted more.
Henceforward I, like so many before me and since, went down the IPA rabbit hole. The bitterness was like spicy food, once you acclimatized to it you needed more to feel that rush of endorphins again. Beers at the time were touting how many IBUs they could cram into their IPAs, the bitter-er the better. The highest number wins. It was a testament to your masculinity. Psh, you drink Sierra Nevada? That’s only like, 60 IBUs man. I drink Founders Devil Dancer Triple IPA, 112 IBU and 10 varieties of hops. Get on my level.
This, of course, was unsustainable. With the increase in IBU came the increase in ABV. 9% double IPAs were everywhere. When the thrill of danger wore off after we had our 21st birthdays, we found we just didn’t like drinking these beers anymore. We liked to go out and drink all night and have fun, but after one of these beers our tongues were so beat up we couldn’t taste anything, and after three we couldn’t stand up straight. The shark had officially been jumped.
Variations came. The “black” IPA, the Belgian IPA, the fruited IPA. When the “session” IPA came we scoffed that this was just a re-branded pale ale. But secretly we drank them, thankful that at least the alcohol was under control. And then there was a shift. Heady Topper started it on the East Coast, and it has since become it’s own style. The New England IPA, a cloudy, unbelievably aromatic, flavorful, and delicious beer that had the IBU level of a pale ale, but the hop flavor like nothing we’d ever tried before. Here were hops in their true essence, the flavor of this incredible ingredient displayed in a beer that allowed you to have that second pint and didn’t try to blow you away with unabashed bitterness.
Hype followed it. The breweries that produced it became legendary, their names spoken with hushed reverence and the beers coveted and gifted in equal measure. They appeared on the black market. Two hour waits in line in the parking lot of the brewery just for a chance to get a couple growlers. Production has increased but the demand hasn’t abated. Obviously, IPA has finally evolved into it’s true form, and the masses are clamoring.
But will people appreciate it the way I do? So many never had to go through those early years of growing pains, the IBU wars, the single hop varietals, the dreaded Belgian IPA. Will people pick up one of these New England IPAs and say from the very first sip, “this is amazing!” They won’t have the steep learning curve I went through when, on my first sip of that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, I nearly spit it out.
Maybe it’s just the curmudgeonly griping of a thirty-something who simply was born to early, before the IPA renaissance. Like the old blues singers who legitimately had to pay their dues versus the pop stars who were born into a world where strife and struggle are things you read about on Google news. Will my children have the same stories about having to choke down “good” beer because they had to hide from the law? I don’t know. But I can say for myself that when I take a sip of that cloudy, floral, perfectly imbalanced IPA, I can tell you about the rough and difficult road the style took to get where it is, because I was there with it the whole way.