Let these names roll around your mouth a moment: mumme, jopenbier, Peeterman, Cöpenicker Moll. Delicious, aren’t they? And yet the beers they designated don’t always sound equally so. Jopenbier, for example—a specialty of Gdansk, Poland—had an original gravity of near 1.200 (that’s not a typo), was spontaneously fermented, but was so poorly attenuated that it ended up at around 3.5%. (Shockingly, one report suggested that “it is not possible to drink much Jopenbier.” You don’t say?) Mumme was similarly dense, but didn’t have the reputation for the kind of florid yeasts and molds that formed on fermenting jopenbier. About Peeterman, the famous Belgian writer Georges Lacambre wrote: it is “viscous, very brown-coloured and has a slightly penetrating and aromatic bouquet.” Cöpenicker moll, by contrast, had an original gravity of 1.034 and finished at 1.023—boasting a whopping 1.4%.
Most beer styles are extinct. They had their moments, but eventually people turned to other flavors—leaving us to reflect with melancholy on the sunset of the Jopenbier age. This process of natural selection occurred to me when I recently I sat down in front of a row of triple IPAs (3IPA hereafter). It was Pliny day at Roscoe’s, possibly my favorite Portland, OR, pub, one of the few places to regularly receive a sixth-barrel keg of Russian River’s famous, near-mythical Pliny the Younger. To turn an event into a celebration of 3IPAs, Roscoe’s also got kegs of Boneyard Notorious, Breakside Safe Word, Barley Brown Forklift and pFriem Triple IPA. The crowd went wild.
Triple IPAs are among the beer styles most-loved by the kinds of people who rate beer on BeerAdvocate (Pliny the Younger is the second-rated beer in the category, which includes double IPAs, just behind Heady Topper). They inspire devotion, poetry, heated arguments, tons of press and insane resale values. They are also, in my opinion, a pretty likely candidate for extinction.
Even ardent fans must concede that 3IPAs are not for everyone. The goal is hop tincture, the purest distillation of bitterness and flavor available in potable form. Their flavors fuzz into sensory feedback, like the guitars on a death metal song turned to 11. Triple IPAs offer the rush of excitement (one accentuated by the lightheadedness that comes after several mouthfuls) rather than a sophisticated expression of flavors and aromas. In fact, when I brought my attention to the flavors, they were so muddy that it was hard to really distinguish them. That’s obviously the point, though—Slayer is not Mozart—and who can argue against the passions of those who set the Internet alight every February when Pliny comes to town?
But all those extremes are exactly why I think 3IPAs may be headed for history’s dustbin. The beers that stand the test of time do not inhabit the extremes. Even when beers are popular, their very extremeness makes them vulnerable. People probably thought that sexy Burton ale—beloved from the midlands all the way to St. Petersburg—was never going to die. Eventually, though, its gluey body and stiff hopping sent it into decline. Popularity is no guide. Indeed, walk with me a moment through beer’s cemetery and let’s have a look at the gravestones. Patterns emerge.
– Beers of extreme strengths. Imagine beer styles arranged on a continuum from strongest to weakest. Those on the far ends have always struggled to survive, even when they have had quite a heyday. Milds, on the weak end, once owned England. Now they’re struggling to survive. (And let us not forget poor Cöpenicker Moll.) On the other side, stock ales, October beer, Burton and barley wines all enjoyed success at one time before becoming marginalized (or going extinct).
– Intense beers. Using that same philosophy—call it the bell curve of beers—those styles with extreme flavors also live on the edge. Berliner weisse, lambic, the strangely smoky-tart Lichtenhainer—all have either come very close to extinction or experienced it once already. There are only two breweries still making rauchbier, and I’ve experienced firsthand the difficulty of trying to get people past the first wash of campfire that passes over their palate.
– Weird and/or trendy beers. The pales made in Burton, once the pride of the kingdom, were known for a sulfurous aroma known locally as “Burton snatch.” This was a scent not bound for modernity. Devon white ale, made with eggs and wheat flour, was a raw, silty affair (though one source said the ale was “drank very freely by the ladies, and seems the cause of their plump and healthy appearances”). Gose, the salted, lactic-soured beer from Goslar and Leipzig, is pretty weird and did go extinct before enjoying an unlikely revival. Berliner weisse could easily fit into this category as well, given its status not only as a one-time world-beater, but also later a sad, debased drink defiled by woodruff and raspberry syrups.
– Obsolete beers. As humans got better at making beer, certain local specialties did not pass the test of evolution. There were just better choices, and they went obsolete. Germany is home to what seems the greatest number of these oddities, but Belgium and France had their share, as well. Even in the United States, styles like pre-Prohibition lagers, cream ales and steam ales were made essentially obsolete by more modern techniques and styles.
Triple IPAs fall into a couple of those categories. It’s also worth observing that, despite their love by certain uber-geeks, they have never exactly punched into the mainstream. It’s no guarantee, but if you’re placing bets, put a buck or two on 3IPAs to bite the dust. Which other beers are failures-in-waiting? I would nominate black IPAs (trendy, unnecessary and intense), American amber and blond ales (obsolete artifacts of the early craft era), malt liquor (an obsolete artifact of the pre-craft era), rauchbiers (too weird and intense) and gose, grodziskie, and braggot (failed revivals).
This much is certain: Some modern styles will fail. The question is which ones.