Monday, May 19, 2008

More hops, dammit!

Some discussion that goes on around the beer forums and beer blogs is the subject of "extreme" beers. These are the types of beers that usually assault your senses with hops and/or alcohol. I've had a few in my day, and generally speaking, I like a more straighforward beer that goes down smoothly but still has some character to it. Still, there are some that certain people might label "extreme" that I'm pretty fond of drinking.

One style that gets a lot of discussion is the IPA, or even the Double IPA. The IPA, or India Pale Ale, dates back to when the British had to ship beer to their soldiers who were stationed in India. Of course, this was before refrigeration, and there was the major problem of keeping it drinkable during the voyage. The solution was to increase the alchohol content (basically by adding more malt which creates more fermentable sugars) and the amount of hops used in the beer. The result was a distinctly strong-tasting beer, but it eventually became quite popular, and people could get it at the pub in England.

With the craft beer movement in the United States (particularly on the West Coast), the IPA has evolved into something else. Basically, the same concept of higher alchohol and more hops is the starting point, but the American styles are even stronger and hoppier than their English forebearers. In fact, the term "hop-head" has been used to describe fans of these styles.

The point of criticism amongst many brewers and beer fans is that adding more hops doesn't necessarily make for a good beer. One take on it is that it's like saying, "This is the saltiest soup you'll ever try!" I mean, who would be interested in trying that? And of course, a beer that tastes like nothing but hops wouldn't be very appealing either.

So, I'm with them. More hops do not create a better beer. However, some of the better brewers out there don't just make it about the hops. True, their beers might be quite hoppy, but the goal that they strive to attain is balance. In other words, the malt flavor compliments the hops, and no single flavor overpowers the other. (Many of them are aged in oak barrels, and that adds to both the flavor and the overall balance.)

So, the salty soup analogy only goes so far. After all, a really good soup might also be pretty salty, but it's not all the additional salt that makes it good. Still, take the salt out and you'd be stuck with something less than stellar. A better analogy might be, "This is the spiciest chili you'll ever try!" The spiciness doesn't necessarily make it good, but if you like it hot, then it'll have some appeal. Same goes for hoppy beers.

I've made an IPA myself once, and it turned out quite good. My friends also raved about it. It's a clone of Russian River's Blind Pig IPA. I only have about three bottles left, and I'll probably buy the same kit later on this summer to make another batch. (It uses oak chips which recreates the flavor that you get when the beer is stored in oak barrels.)

But what if you're not a homebrewer, but you're interested in trying something that's a bit stronger than your average brew? (I personally recommend any of these with some really spicy food - the two tastes go really well together, as only something really strong can stand up to a spicy meal.) Try out the following:

Lagunitas IPA
Lagunitas Maximus (their Double IPA, which I find to actually be a bit smoother than their regular IPA)
ACME IPA (From North Coast Brewing)
Full Sail IPA
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (seasonal)

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