The India Pale Ale (IPA) experience is hard to explain and even harder to celebrate in the presence of non-beer-drinkers. For the uninitiated, a typical person’s reaction to their first sip of IPA usually goes something like this:
I’d revoke his Man Card, but it just performed seppuku in a desperate attempt to die with honor.
If IPAs taste like a mouthful of Armageddon to you, it’s not that far from the truth. The traditional formulation of IPA came about in an attempt to construct a beer capable of destroying all the microscopic beasties bent on infecting the brew during its long journey to the East Indies. The high alcohol content and ample hopping proved successful in both preventing spoilage and numbing sailors to the idea they’d pretty much only be sexing each other for the next three to five months.
Nerds have since discovered it was specifically the isohumulone content of the hops that inhibited the growth of Lactobacillus. It wasn’t initially apparent why this molecule excelled at microbial genocide, but modern imaging techniques of its structure made it all too clear:
I’ve illustrated why IPAs are celebrated for their bitterness, but it doesn’t bring me any closer to relating in words how much more bitter this style is than others. Perhaps this SAT-style analogy will help elucidate it:
Pale Ale : IPA :: ”American Gladiators” : Actual Gladiators
Consider the rift between these two groups of “gladiators.” While I’ll admit to being intimidated by any of the physical specimens above, I’m not likely to mistake the fellow on the right as being my hairdresser. The IPA’s bitterness is legit to the same degree.
Still not clear? Use this handy chart I made using science to better contextualize it:
Pliny The Elder (8% ABV)
The namesake of this beer was a Roman author, naturalist, naval commander and philosopher. He wrote the first known encyclopedic work of Natural History as well. All of that is pretty impressive until you realize that he didn’t have access to the internet. What the hell else was he going to do all day?
Pictured: A huge waste of time.
This IPA has a thick, creamy head resting atop a hazy, yellow-amber brew. The fragrance is mild, but has distinct orange and lemon notes.
The first taste is an unmistakable blast of orange and citrus flavors. The mouthfeel is moderately full and a little sticky. The hop profile evolves (or is specially created by an all-knowing, beer-tinkering God, depending on your religious views) to produce more sour grapefruit flavors the longer it lingers in your mouth. Allowing it to warm a bit really opens it up, becoming notably more resinous and piney.
The best way to relate the experience of drinking Pliny The Elder would be to imagine trying a first person shooter for the first time. The first taste is like being faced with the start-up challenges like “Let’s Calibrate Your Controller” and “Let’s Walk Down This Linear Pathway So Your Useless Ass Doesn’t Get Lost.” The taste just 4 minutes later is akin to being unceremoniously plunked down into “Hurt Me Plenty”-level game play, getting lit up like your body armor was made with match heads. Some may wish to skip the Special Needs intro to the game and others will likely quit after getting savaged, but I rather enjoy the entire journey. How Kerouac-ian of me.
Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA (7.5% ABV)
The Union Jack IPA produces a foamy finger of head above the crisp, amber brew. It leaves heavy curtains of lacing around the glass. The nose has soft floral notes and a mild biscuity hint to it.
The West Coast IPAs are renowned for their abrasive, no-holds-barred approach to hopping their beers. Balance is disregarded as a triviality, a refuge for the spineless and weak. However, this IPA manages to deliver an initial onslaught of spicy and floral hop notes that actually is slowly matched by a malty, sweet presence. It’s the inverse of my expectation and quite interesting to drink.
Ballast Point Sculpin IPA (7% ABV)
The sculpin may seem like kind of a pug ugly selection to celebrate the IPA, but it’s actually perfect. This squat bottom-feeder may not look like much, but the ridge of venomous fins on its back assures it has real bite. Still, I don’t see why you’d go with such a subtle selection when Sharktopus has yet to grace a beer…
Pro-Tip: Should a friend ever get stung by a sculpin, offer to pee on the wound. Hot water is technically the appropriate treatment here, but when else are you gonna get a free shot at this?
The Sculpin IPA produces a full, beady head rich with lemon notes and a generally tangy aroma. For however abrasive IPAs can be, this uniquely concentrated family of smells is something that always beckons to me.
The flavor goes into full effect quickly with sharp citrus, apricot and pine notes. The mouthfeel is light, if a bit oily. I was going to make a joke about how it lingers on your palate so long it could be considered squatting, but I’m afraid I can’t trust the internet to read “squatting on my tongue” and not turn it into a filthy Photoshop.
I caught an almost grape-like sweetness in the middle of the taste, but it is fleeting. Ultimately, this one resolves much as it introduced itself – a bright, citrusy IPA that will challenge some and impress most.