I had a plan for this month’s column. I was going to write about Wine Districts (once Westview Liquors), and a few other things, but something came up.
There’s an article making the rounds on social media right now talking about how hazy IPAs — or at least certain hazy IPA’s, or New England-style IPAs — are leading to undrinkable beers.
And you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t refer to the author by name. I refuse to direct too much traffic to an article that is the curmudgeonly equivalent of, “get off my lawn.”
Don’t get me wrong, the article is well-written, as well as thoughtful, and the author addresses some very technical reasons for why the IPAs in question are undrinkable. Specifically, he addresses hop-burn and palate burnout caused by this. He talks about the need that many breweries have to outdo each other, seeking that bigger, bolder flavor, and how that is leading to undrinkable beer.
Unfortunately, a careful read of the article reveals that it’s not that the beer is undrinkable. It’s undrinkable to him.
When he writes, “We are by no means calling for some kind of boycott on the concept of hazy NE-IPAs, here — merely an acknowledgement of how a sizable segment of this style has managed to be led astray by market forces and an extremely competitive game of one-upmanship,” he is tacitly acknowledging that there are a lot of people who find it drinkable. A beer cannot be both undrinkable, and represent a “sizable segment of this style.”
The truth about the industry is that it has become IPA-dominated. And, yes — at least here on the East Coast — dominated by the hazy New England IPAs.
And all styles evolve. All of them.
Almost 1,200 years ago hops were added to beer for the first time. Ever. Three hundred years ago, Americans were adding lavender, and other bittering ingredients in place of had-to-get hops in colonial America. Stouts came from porters, and Russian stouts, which came even later, were something else that came from those same roots. Russian Imperial Stouts were created out of the need to make a stout that could survive the trip from England to Moscow and still be drinkable by the Russian court.
The India Pale Ale evolved from the need to add more hops to the beer shipped from England to India. The hops acted as a preservative, allowing the beer to remain drinkable after a journey that could last upwards of six months. Given that modern brewers usually want you to drink their IPAs within the first couple of months of brewing, I would say — to use the author’s words in describing his problem with what is going on with NEIPAs — that IPA, as a style, “it barely resembles the style’s original goal.”
And this is really the root of my issue with the author’s argument.
At the root of it he talks about the original intent of style, but fails to recognize the irony of him complaining about NE-IPAs shifting from their original intent, when the whole style has (and he doesn’t acknowledge that in any way, shape or form). If I had to guess, virtually no style resembles “the style’s original goal,” and this just comes off as pretentious.
When I started drinking, you pretty much had British IPAs (or the original ones), and American IPAs. Then you had East Coast and West Coast. Then California, and, eventually, New England.
We are so far from “original goal,” that the idea that it is someone’s complaint is laughable.
Look, here’s the truth of the matter, and I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus, or name names, but brewers get frustrated with IPAs. Brewing, probably more so than many other professions, is both art and science — quite literally. And, quite frankly, they often get frustrated over producing IPA after IPA after IPA. Granted, not all of them, but many would like to have a bigger following of people who appreciate the styles that require more finesse to make.
Many brewers out there would like to see their lagers, Pilsners, Kolsches sell better. Why? Because it requires a greater ability, and technical know-how than cramming more and more hops into a beer.
That might be the author’s real point, but it gets lost in a misguided notion of “original goal,” and what he himself sees as undrinkable, not what the masses find undrinkable. And, fundamentally, for all the art and science that go into brewing, it’s still a business. Which, in the end, is why brewers will continue to brew and evolve their beers to what the market demands. Because to do otherwise is, in essence, committing suicide with your business.
One other point that the original author misses. I have no problem with the author talking about the style, or the way the style has gone as being undrinkable to him. Taste is subjective (although there are objective-ish guidelines that are published regarding what flavors are expected in a particular style), as evidenced by one-star reviews on Untappd that read, “I don’t like this style.”
I do have a problem with him making a blanket statement that these beers are undrinkable. I might not like them. He might not like them, and his girlfriend might not. Hell, the brewers might even not like them. But there is a customer base for them that finds these beers imminently drinkable. And if there wasn’t a crowd for it, the brewers would stop making those beers.
So, until next month, when I talk to the folks at The Wine District, and I talk about some good, end of summer beer destinations, be well, and drink good beer.