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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bitter Old-School IPAs

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to harvest one more experience from the weekend's OBA judging. It was in the category "classic UK and American styles," a catch-all for styles that are so niche in the US there's no reason to devote to them an entire category: milds and bitters, browns (UK and US), US wheat and amber, English summer ales, cream ales, steam beer, etc.

One of the beers was an old-school American IPA. It was nearly brown, thick as honey and sweet with caramel, and so bitter we might as well have been taking a cheese grater to our tongues. Our mouths were still stinging the next round--and I mean this literally. Amazingly, these kinds of beers did once exist. Brewers sometimes added aroma hops, but the attention was squarely focused on causing as much violence to the drinker as possible. Even more amazing: we liked them. Well, some of us at least.

At our judging table, this beer sparked a philosophical reverie: was this actually a classic style? Or was it, rather, an awkward phase along the way to becoming an actual style--the pimply 15-year-old version of a grown-up, fully-developed American IPA? Was it, in other words, an old style fallen from favor, or embarrassing juvenilia?

Much evidence supports the latter, very little the former. Aesthetically, old-school IPAs are a train wreck. It's hard to know what every made us think this was a good idea: "I know, I'll make a tincture of hop so deadly the human mouth won't be able to absorb it, but I'll balance it by using 50% caramel malt so that it's as heavy as glue and sweet enough to rot teeth. That beer will totally rule." It's a strange scenario, I'll grant, but humans have lost their minds in the past and thought leisure suits, tuna casseroles, and brutalist architecture were cool, too.

Certain styles of beer look pretty weird on the merits of aesthetics, though. So perhaps someone could defend these IPAs through some kind of offbeat rationale. But then there's the matter of their disappearance: if they were loved by someone, shouldn't they have hung on, at least to the extent, say, amber ales have? I've never loved ambers, but they possess a certain logic. You can see how someone might like them--and indeed when I mentioned a brewery recently that was making an amber, many people on social media gave it the thumbs up. But truly violent 1997 IPAs--those things are the dinosaurs of craft beer. We know them only through the archaeological record.

Some styles manage to emerge and live a fitful but ultimately fleeting existence, passing without much fanfare. I love reading about them when Ron presents an obscure old text with mention of the extinct relics. But if we mourn them with the tinge of nostalgia, we don't go far as to actually want to drink them. An IPA with a decent punch in the nose--yes, we still like those. But not actual vintage IPAs; they just seem primitive to modern palates. No one today would make these beers without tweaking them (more hop flavor and aroma, less bitterness, way less caramel malt). An evocation of the past, maybe. Beyond that, let that adolescent, with his zits and braces and Twisted Sister posters, remain entirely in the past..


  1. Many of the aroma hops that are mainstays of today's American IPA did not exist.

    Timing is everything, too. There's no telling what the market would say if traveled back to 1997 and showed them an IPA that looked and tasted like fruit juice.

  2. I had my first IPA around 1997 and hated it. It took me years before I was willing to try one again.

  3. I don't think Anchor Liberty was ever brown. Burt Grant's India Pale was pretty pale - granted, its smacked you with bitterness, but there was lots of aroma. Those were pioneers. 1997? Bell's Two-Hearted, Goose Island IPA were well established in the Midwest. So I think you are talking about a subset of a broader category.

  4. I'm trying to figure out which IPAs were that bitter around 1997. That's the year we moved to Portland, and I can think of Bridgeport IPA - not to bitter. I can't remember whether Rogue made an IPA back then, ditto for Full Sail and Portland Brewing.

  5. Funny you mention Amber Ales... I'm working on a blog post diving into the "classic" style and brewing them. (I love that old malty classic Amber...)

    I think these old "classic" tongue stripping IPAs are important in the sense that million-Scoville-unit hot sauces are important-- somebody loves them, and/or loves extreme flavors. It's also a fascinating glimpse into the overall development of the style, as you point out, and such things have value even if only from an educational standpoint.

    And I wonder... as a "classic American IPA" was it a good example of THAT style?