Thursday, March 24, 2011

American (Double) IPA - Hopped to Holy Hell!

Americans seem to like doing things louder and bolder than the rest of the world.  It's just their way, and it seems to have been so since the very beginning.  Their country wasn't formed as a consequence of a gradual  series of legislative acts and amendments, nor does it trace its roots to a bygone empire of antiquity - no, the USA needed a war to get rolling - a big one with a clear-cut enemy - and then later an even bigger one to keep things together.   Their process to elect a new president features packed convention halls, media blitzes, parades, epic battles for the swing states; in Canada, it's over in about a month and most of that time Canadians bitch about why we bothered having one in the first place.  America's main sporting events, awards shows, holidays, their 'cuisine' - are all in-your-face, full of TexMex spices, possibly involving several explosions and a monster truck or two. 

And so it must seem strange that, for the longest time, American beer was among the blandest in the entire planet (and a lot of it still is).

It's not really America's fault - the same thing happened in Canada, and to a lesser extent the UK - but then again, its Americans who drank the damn stuff, so they can still bear the blame.  Following the disastrous experiment with Prohibition (1919-1933) and coinciding with the rise of mass-market consumerism, America's breweries became fewer in number and offered products that were essentially indiscernible from one another.  Brewhouses became more concerned with image, advertising and "branding" of their product, regardless of how the beer tasted.  And boy, was it bland.  Based on market research, brewers determined that consumers wanted a beer that was lighter, easier to drink and, thanks to the fitness-crazed 1970s, lower in calories.  Though "light beer" has been around for millennia (the ancient Sumerians had a beer designed to "reduce the waist" as much as five thousand years ago), the Americans brought it to its current pre-eminence, starting with Miller Lite in 1973.  Thanks to an ingenious advertising campaign, what should have been derided as being "diet" beers have now become intrinsically connected to American 'masculinity' (by which I mean masculinity as defined by Maxim Magazine and Spike TV).  The non-light stuff wasn't much better; pale lagers like Budweiser, Old Milwaukee and Schlitz, made with adjunct hops and cheaper ingredients all pretty much taste like grainy fizz.

American hops, ready for brewing!

With the rise of the craft beer movement in the late 1970s, flavor finally returned to the forefront.  Breweries like San Francisco's Anchor Brewing started brewing with real grains and hops, bold ones like the native Cascade or the traditional noble hops of central Europe.  Though Budweiser-Coors-Miller still maintains its hegemony over the beer market, craft brewers in the United States have fully embraced bold and flavorful brews that are more in tune with the American way of living, and are attracting a devoted following.   Brewmasters across the country have taken the traditional styles of Europe and made them distinctly 'American', using bolder flavors and demanding stronger palates to fully appreciate them.  Well, they may have gotten a bit carried away with the idea in this respect, but at least the beers are becoming more, rather than less flavorful.   Perhaps no style is more indicative of this trend, more telling about the American way of brewing than the Double IPA or Imperial IPA. (There has been a bit of a controversy over the naming of these beers, with many beer critics and brewers arguing against the overuse of "imperial" as a qualifier for stronger, bolder brews.  I tend to agree with them; what's next, an "imperial wheat beer?" An "imperial brown ale?"  'Double' is more than satisfactory in conveying beer strength, in my opinion.)

As you can probably guess, there are IPAs and then there are Double IPAs.  To quote Beer Advocate's definition: "Take an India Pale Ale and feed it steroids," and there you will have a DIPA.  The standard American IPA is a pale ale with a strong hopped profile and slightly higher ABV that uses distinctly American hops - usually ones from the Pacific Northwest - and is thus bolder and more citrussy than its English namesake.  Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA are two popular examples of this style.  The DIPA is basically the same thing, only stronger, much stronger.  These things are unapologetic 'hop bombs', brews with massive bitter, spicy flavors and high alcohol contents to match.  Beastly brews, these.   With American craft brewing, it seems to be the hoppier the better, almost to a fault.  Fortunately most of the better breweries seem to be doing a decent job in balancing their hopbombs with a good malt profile; otherwise, you might as well just bite down on a raw cone of hops (try it - it'll blow your mind!) 

American-style IPAs and Double IPAs are a bit hard to come by in this province; the first beer of the review was a gift from a friend of mine in Minnesota, and the second is an LCBO seasonal brew that probably won't be here for too long.  Every once in a while you might see Dogfish Head 60 Minute, Southern Tier IPA or other brews like these kicking about, but I can't say I've seen them for a long time.  Head down to the States, however, and you'll find beers like these everywhere.  (Though its not a style Canadian craft brewers traditionally have worked with, it's cropped up more and more recently; Flying Monkey's Smash Bomb Atomic IPA is an excellent example of the style and should be in the LCBO at some point this year!)

Enough stalling - on with the reviews!

Beer: Surly Furious
Brewery: Surly Brewing Company (Brooklyn Center, Minnesota)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 6.2%

A microbrewery with an image I can get behind, Surly is one of the giants of the Minnesotan craft brewery industry.  Although they have an impressive array of brews - most of which are only available in canned form - Surly is perhaps most famous for their "Darkness" series of Russian Imperial Stouts.  Each season around Halloween, the new batch of the brew is released with a different label character (Dracula or the Grim Reaper, in past years), with the bottlecap sealed in different-coloured wax.  Surly is also well-known for their 'Abrasive' and 'Furious' IPAs, the latter of which I managed to get a hold of this past week.  Suffice to say, I am pretty pumped.

Poured into a nonic. A nice bright copper-amber brew that left a thick, creamy head.  Tons of lacing here, while the head survives as a thick ring. Some sediment flakes are suspended throughout the glass. Looks brilliant.

Nose is wonderful hoppy goodness. Grapefruit, earth, tropical fruit, resin, toffee, bread. Could have been a touch stronger, but man was this nice.

A great IPA that delivers a hoppy blast in a big way. Starts with a bitter citrus hoppy blast, mellows for a moment to let the malts and sweet fruits (mango, lychee) get some attention, before another bitter hoppy wave hits you on the way out. The finish is very long and hoppy. Terrific stuff.

Slightly creamy, thinner bodied, mild but potent carbonation. I could sip this all night.

Definitely did not disappoint. I haven't had a good American craft IPA in a while and this was a great brew to break that fast. Surprisingly balanced, fruity, yet of course the hops steal the show. Wish I could have more of will not suffice!  Unfortunately, I might have to wait for some time before I can have another of these; near as I can tell, Surly's distribution is pretty well restricted to Minnesota and a few scattered specialty beer shops in nearby states.  Yet another reason for a road trip...   (Grade: A)

Beer: Southern Tier Imperial Gemini
Brewery: Southern Tier (Lakeport, NY)
Type: Double IPA
ABV: 10.5%

Another seasonal/one-off effort from a longtime LCBO mainstay, Southern Tier.  These are the folks that brought us Imperial Choklat and Imperial Pumking last year - two big beers that also boasted huge flavors.  Clearly, "imperial" is a theme that Southern Tier's brewers seem to enjoy working with, with fairly impressive results thus far I have to say.  Indeed, I've been quite happy thus far with Southern Tier's imperial series that have made it up to Ontario, although their flavors and alcohol content often necessitate one to share the bottle with a friend.  A bottle to oneself can be a bit much.

Gemini is actually a straight blending of two of Southern Tier's everyday brews - Hoppe Extra Pale Ale and Unearthly IPA - the twin beers are intended to remind the drinker of the harmony found within the constellation Gemini and the 1960s space program named after it.  The brew's recipe calls for a lovely array of "big C" American hops - Chinook, Cascade, Centennial and Columbia. 

Poured into a nonic. A pale amber hue with about an inch of fluffy head. A good deal of lacing is left behind, and the head survived quite nicely throughout the pint, especially with a top-up later on to finish off the bottle.  Looks right on the spot.

Nose is resiny and citrus hops, tropical fruits (pineapple, mango, lychee) and bready malts.  Smells divine.

It took me quite a few sips for me to really see where Southern Tier was going with this, but when I did I certainly can say I enjoyed it.  This was a boozy, fruity hopbomb to be sure, but I think the pale ale created stronger malty backing than the hops could handle. Indeed, this is quite malty and surprisingly sweet.  Far sweeter than the Surly Furious, at any rate. Finishes with a nice little citrus hop kick, however.

Big flavor and alcohol make this a slow sipper to be sure. Creamy, thin bodied.

Pretty interesting brew here. I think the hops got a bit overrun though, as the malts and tropical fruit flavors gave the brew a nearly cloying level of sweetness. Still, enjoyable nevertheless and worth a try. At nearly 10 bucks a bottle though, I doubt more than one bottle of this will make its way into my fridge this year.  (Grade: B+)

There are scads of other IPAs and Double/Imperial IPAs to be found in the States, as it seems that nearly every craft brewery worth its salt has at least one or two in its lineup.  It's a style that is certainly hit or miss with most folks; if you can't get over the initial bitterness, I wouldn't blame you for a second.  A good thing to keep in mind: once you take those initial few sips, your tastebuds will acclimatize to the hoppy goodness and you'll be able to detect more flavors - malt, caramel, fruit and the like - from then on.  If you give IPAs some time, you'll find yourself becoming more and more addicted to Vitamin Hop with every sip, like folks who put ever more and more hot sauce on the foods they eat.  Eventually, lower-hopped brews might not cut it for you; I often have to remind myself that not every beer need be a hop bomb.  It's a slippery slope, but damn I love it.

Other great ones to try, if you can find them (most are from California and the West Coast):

Russian River's Pliny the Elder
Bell's Hopslam
Lagunitas' Hop Stoopid; Lagunitas IPA 
Oskar Blues' Gubna Imperial
Ninkasi's Total Domination
Stone's IPA

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