This article appears in the September 2016 issue of All About Beer Magazine, on newsstands now.
From early on in my writing career, I’ve referred to pilsner as “the beer that conquered the world.” This dry, hoppy, golden lager rolled out of Bohemia in the early 1840s and quickly became the world’s favorite. Europe, Africa, Asia, South and North America, Australia (and undoubtedly Antarctica): Every continent fell to its allure. The “pilsners” of today are different from the pilsners of yesterday. They’ve metamorphosed: Czech pilsners begat German pilsners, North German pilsners, the sweeter pilsners of Latin America and the light pilsners of North America, but they are all, of course, pilsners (because they say so).
Eventually though, some of us got tired of a steady diet of pilsners brewed in huge tanks and shipped all across the land and sea. Some revolted and brewed other beers, throwbacks to the beers we read about, re-creations or homages—“riffs,” you could call them—of the quite different beers that still hung on in countries like England, and Ireland and Belgium. Ales of all varieties, sour and wild beers, spiced, fruited and unfiltered: all kinds of beers were offered, and new ideas flourished.
It took decades from those first tiny steps, but difference has conquered; variety has triumphed! We now have at least 37 kinds of IPA! Yes, once we only had Anchor Liberty Ale and Bass ale (which did say it was an IPA …), but then we got West Coast IPA and British IPA, and Imperial and Double IPA, and now we have 24/7 IPA, IPA All The Time, from Session to Quintuple, from bright to hazy. Session IPA was almost inevitable. IPA is “the beer that conquered the niche,” I guess.
Speaking as a guy who’s been preaching the beer gospel for over 30 years, I’m feeling short-changed. Damn it, I didn’t put up with the abuse of my co-workers and relatives, or spend thousands of dollars on questionable beers from brewers with six months’ experience during the buildup, just to get the opportunity to drink hoppy, hoppier and hoppiest, no matter how good those hops are! I’ve been at beer bars where over three-quarters of the taps were pouring some variation on an IPA, or at least something that called itself an IPA. There are a lot more taps at bars now than there were back in my salad days, but I happily recall places with only five taps that had more variety.
And please don’t tell me that there are sour beers too; I know all too well that there are sour beers. You know, we had them back in the day as well, but no one ever tried to fill a bar with them. At least if I get tired of IPA and sour, I can be sure that there’s going to be an imperial stout (probably barrel-aged) around to quench the bitter sourness. Of course, if I want more bitter sourness, I could always get a hoppy sour or a sour IPA!
It took 30 years, but we’ve almost come full circle. Back in the ’80s, almost everywhere you went offered you a choice of light lagers, and maybe a Guinness or a Bass, and if you were lucky, a cream ale. Now most of the places I visit offer me a broad choice of IPAs, and maybe a couple of sours or saisons, and a couple of big dark ales. There may be a pilsner, if I’m lucky; it’s probably hopped to the gills.
It’s so boring! We’ve reached the point where brewers are stuffing things into IPAs to make them more interesting: grapefruit, peppers, ginger, lemons, blood oranges, flowers. One brewer had the tongue-in-cheek puckishness to describe his IPA as “beer-flavored.” I can’t decide whether I should salute or punch him in the nose.
We’ve learned so much about flavor and brewing techniques that it seems a terrible waste to use it only to dry hop, spin out the hops oil, and then add the bug of the week to the fermenter. Session, Brett, Double, Red, White, Green, Triple, what flavor of IPA do you want, sir? We have everything.
For God’s sake, we changed the world! We brewed and we bought and we built a beer market that stood the old one on its head, from light lager everywhere to the possibility of stouts, bocks, lambics, pale ales, porters, altbiers, smoked beers, real ales, pilsners, imperial stouts, kölsches, kellerbiers, milds and bitters, even things we’d never heard of, like goses and grodziskies … and you use it to get 20 different kinds of IPA? I ought to kick your hop-sucking asses, all of you.
Try something different. If all you drink is IPA, you’re just another damned herbivore. It’s like you kicked the fast food habit and all you do is eat at different sushi houses. Sushi’s great, but … every day? What about cheese? What about waterzooi? What about baguettes? What about chicken mole? Always getting IPA is only a tiny bit off from Michael Jackson’s famous comparison of ordering “a beer” to ordering a plate of “food.”
We did this for you. Don’t squander it. Enjoy it. To paraphrase Jackson again: IPA is a playground; it’s not a prison.
Lew Bryson has been writing about beer for more than 25 years and is the author of Tasting Whiskey. On Twitter @LewBryson