Some crave big Cali Cabs. Others yearn for artisanal coffee. I’m hooked on IPAs, the bitter poster child of American craft beer.
It was love at first sip.
After years of Rocky Mountain lagers, my first Victory HopDevil rewired my palate.
I wanted more, so I sought IPAs packing ever-heftier doses of bitterness and booze. Over the years my taste buds were—lovingly, gloriously—beaten into submission, so when I sipped anything lighter, it was like drinking grain-flavored water.
I wasn’t the only one conditioned to think bigger was better. The IPA is the most popular craft beer in the world, and the style helped make “craft beer” a household term.
“In craft beer’s formative years,” says Mike Stevens, Founders Brewing Co.’s CEO, “We had to hit people over the head with full-throttle beers.”
In time, however, I started to grow tired of pummeling my palate. I still dug IPA’s citrusy, fragrant scents, but the roughshod bitterness was increasingly off-putting. I wanted nuance, not something that eroded my tooth enamel.
But lately, the IPA pendulum has started swinging in a smoother direction. Brewers are using new strains of hops, such as the papaya-scented Citra and the melon-like Galaxy, to deliver a payload of complex flavors and aromas without that screw-face bitterness. And many of these new IPAs—Founders All Day IPA, Firestone Walker Easy Jack and New Belgium Slow Ride—are low in alcohol, like Bud Light low.
Stevens puts it another way: “We have taken everyday consumption of mass-produced beer from a light, bland taste to full-flavored.”
Even some of the Imperial IPAs, the bitterest of bitter beers, are showing signs of mellowing.
“If your palate is wrecked after one glass, what’s the point of having a second?” says Jeff Baker, “director of fluid assets” at Farmhouse Tap & Grill, a brewpub in Burlington, Vermont.
It’s way too early to etch a tombstone for dank, strong IPAs. Craft brews account for just 11 percent of the beer we Americans drink, so epiphanies and journeys like mine will continue well into the future.
But, if you’re still happily climbing toward IPA’s bitter peak, by all means, keep going. Drink what you like. Just know the descent is turning out to be just as delicious.