I owe my adoration of highly hopped beers to high school. Like most teenagers, geography, popularity, and access heavily influenced my drinking preferences. I grew up in Northern California, a hotbed of the burgeoning microbrew style of beer making. Besides the watery Bud and Coors, we were also able find (when a fake ID presented itself) flavorful beers like Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam. These and other microbrews were the beers to drink among my Grateful Dead-following friends; our beer choice was as much a reflection of cultural affiliation as taste. Cruising around a concert parking lot, it was common to find ice chests full of cold Pete’s Wicked Ale, Red Nectar, and Sammy Adams sold for a buck—no ID required. We were about twenty-five years too late to be real hippies, but we were just in time for the good beer.
In the years to follow, I could usually pick Sierra Nevada out of a line-up. I liked the pale ale hoppiness, unaware that beers with more hops even existed. When I first tasted a Lagunitas India Pale Ale, I didn’t know what the “India” meant, but I knew I liked the beer.
India Pale Ales originated in the 18th century, when English brewers were trying to figure out a way to ship their brews to the East Indies without spoilage. British troops and colonists living in India wanted their motherland beer, but the voyage from London to Calcutta was long, hot, and without refrigeration. Beers usually arrived tasting like the last sip of a forty-ouncer.
To overcome this most pressing problem, George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery in East London came up with a recipe to prevent spoilage. Taking the traditional pale ale recipe, he greatly increased the hops and the alcohol content, both of which have antimicrobial properties. The beer was able to survive the journey, reaching India in a highly drinkable form—and ta-da! a new beer was born. India Pale Ale.
The most distinguishing flavor in an IPA comes from the hop plant (humulus lupulus), which is added to many beers but in larger quantities to an IPA. Hops add a distinct flavor that people usually either love or hate. They impart a bitterness that counteracts the sweetness of malt and aromatic flavors like citrus, floral, and pine. Hops are in the same family as the cannabis plant (cannabaceae), so they have a similarly pungent, floral smell (or so I’m told).
Though it originated in England, when I think of an IPA, I associate it with the American style of beer making—but again, that has a lot to do with the geography familiar to me, and what’s available. Many of my favorite IPAs come from places I’d like to be while I was drinking them—the funky town of Lagunitas, along the Russian River; or in the beautiful Anderson Valley. Here are some of my top picks, in no particular order.
- Lagunitas IPA
Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, CA
5.7 percent alcohol. This is my first and favorite IPA. It’s slightly less bitter than others on this list, but still has the hoppy pine and citrus flavors. A refreshing, easy-to-drink beer.
- Blind Pig IPA
Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, CA
6 percent alcohol. This is a killer IPA, not for the faint of tongue. Strong citrus aroma and flavor, and a lovely amount of hoppy bitterness. You won’t find this one in many bars, but it’s worth a trip to the brewery for a taste.
- Racer Five IPA
Bear Republic Brewing Company, Healdsburg, CA
7 percent alcohol. I’ve been drinking a lot of this IPA recently, probably because it’s very drinkable: slightly malty flavor with a nice amount of bitterness. A bit darker and heavier than other IPAs.
- Hop Ottin’ IPA
Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville, CA
7 percent alcohol. Sweet caramel flavor with a medium amount of hops makes this a very well-balanced IPA. Nice clean mouth feel.
- Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA
Speakeasy Ales and Lagers, San Francisco, CA
6.5 percent alcohol. A light, citrus-flavored IPA. A good choice for novice IPA drinkers because it’s not as bitter or heavy.
- Stone IPA
Stone Brewery Company, Encinitas, CA
6. 9 percent alcohol. A well-balanced beer that is heavy on the citrus and pine flavors and leaves with a crisp finish.
As you can see, most IPAs have a relatively high alcohol content, so it’s good to have them with a bite of food. And to balance their strong flavor, it’s good to drink them with food that bites back: curries, strong cheeses, spicy foods, Italian, and all types of heavy bar food.
Now that I’ve become accustomed to drinking high-hopped beers, it turns out the brew masters are upping the ante: double and triple IPAs. Can there be too much of a good thing? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to try.
Photo courtesy of Lagunitas Brewing Company