The India Pale Ale does not have a naturally broad appeal. At its core, the IPA is the beverage equivalent of heavily salted meats and hardtack. IPA connoisseurs live and die by the bitter flavor heavily hopped beers bring, as though it’s any different than bragging about MSG levels in a ramen noodle flavor packet. The additional hops were not originally added because people thought it would taste better; they were an important preservative instrumental in transporting beer from England to India, where overly bitter beer was better than no beer at all.
Recall the beverage selection of your average grocery store. From a stroll through their beer den with no other information, you might conclude that 80 percent of the beer-drinkers out there are crazy for IPAs. Another 10 percent rave over stouts and porters. The rest can be satiated with a common Miller High Life, or the equivalent. This image of American preferences leaves little room for other suitors to our tastebuds.
The prominence and attention IPAs receive far exceeds their intrinsic appeal. Despite beer’s simple list of just four ingredients (grain, yeast, hops and water), any condescending straight man with access to Wikipedia can attest to the sheer breadth of variety in beers. It’s natural then there is also a broad spectrum of preferences. Some categories of beer have a broader appeal than others; watery lagers drinkability have helped them stand apart as the time tested favorite for Americans.
What exactly is the fundamental value of an IPA? They’re bitter, but ostensibly refreshing to some. To others, they are inextricably tied up with notions of masculinity, where a straight face to mask an involuntary grimace is a good way to prove yourself. My personal research to find the hoppiest of them all yielded tasting notes which ranged from “indistinguishably yucky” to “feels like I just ate carpet.”
It is easy to see why the IPA was such an attractive centerfold for the craft beer movement. They are everything the big domestic brands are not. With craft beers have come innovative breweries who are able to quickly respond to the demands of those seeking better, more flavorful beer. That responsiveness is what has lead us down this road; IPA drinkers require ever more hops to get the same feeling, and once novel ingredients quickly become dated, giving way to even more out there combinations.
We have also swung wildly from one extreme to the other, trading in flavorless party favorites for $10 six-packs that squeeze frenzied flavor combinations together for the sake of going a little further than the brewery down the road. It’s not an improvement.
Where are the craft pilsners, whose ‘beer that tastes like beer’ nature leaves little room for error? Why are our shelves bereft of doppelbocks sprinting toward peak maltiness, to ease us of the hops arms race? Most importantly, why is it beneath many a draft list to have a single craft equivalent of Bud Light in case my Bruce Springsteen loving mother just wants a damn beer?
We buy into fads because we think we can ride the wave to a better place than if we had not participated. Maybe everyone is right, and all you have to do is blind your tastebuds by throwing back hoppy hell beverages one after the other until you’re blindly kicking it in the Apolline. If something is close to the only beverage your local brewpub has on tap, it must be worth devoting so much time to, right? And boy would it be fun to join in on the party.
Except that this moment of IPA fanaticism isn’t a party. It’s an overpriced bunch of codswallop. Next time you’re out with the squad, take a moment to reflect on what you actually want to drink. Maybe wincing in pain is your thing. Or you could just love yourself and order a lager.