Crafty brew-crafters long ago discovered that increasing a beer’s alcohol and hop content also considerably increased its shelf life. A useful discovery for Imperial Brits trying to concoct a brew stout enough to survive the long journey from England, around the Horn of Africa, to its subjects in India – all without the aid of refrigeration. More recently, Americans have discovered a seemingly insatiable taste for this highly hopped style now commonly referred to as India Pale Ale.
My first introduction to the beautifully bitter American IPAs came in the early 1990s via California brewer Sierra Nevada. For years their Pale Ale was not only my beer of choice but was also the only IPA I could find on east coast shelves – and then only in specialty shops and bars.
Soon, though, Sierra was everywhere and so too were IPA drinkers. About a decade after my Sierra conversion I got a taste of what was to come when I discovered Dogfish Head’s hoppier, and more expensive, 60 Minute IPA (first brewed in 2003). Shortly thereafter, all hops broke loose.
A flood of new IPAs entered the market. Today Beer Advocate has reviews for 3,151 different IPAs, making it perhaps the single most popular craft style. But the style itself is changing; becoming bigger and bolder as brewers engage in a hops arms race.
Responding to the competition, Sierra introduced its hoppier Torpedo Extra IPA in 2009. Three short years later it upped the ante again with its release of Hoptimum Imperial IPA. Perhaps afraid that the name Hoptimum was too subtle, Sierra describes its newest creation this way: “Aggressively hopped, dry-hopped, AND torpedoed with our exclusive new hop varieties for ultra-intense flavors and aromas.”
Did you get that? Hops! It’s loaded with freaking HOPS!!!!
Having favored IPAs for nearly 20 years, I still found myself slightly unsure what to think about this recent arms race. Is hopscalation making the world safer for beer lovers or is it really just a M.A.D. dash toward bitter oblivion?
I had to see for myself. Naturally, and fortunately, that involved drinking lots of beer.
We lined up the three Sierras against an IPA and an Imperial IPA from Durango, Colorado’s awesome Ska Brewing. We threw in Missoula Montana’s Big Sky IPA because, why not? The results surprised me.
I consider myself a hop head so going in I assumed the Imperials would dominate the crowd. To my surprise, Ska’s Modus Hoperandi (probably best considered an “Extra” IPA, weighing in at 65 International Bitterness Units) was my favorite. Its bright citrus flavors won me over as a nice complement to the the biting IPA bitterness.
The Imperials, meanwhile, struggled with balance. Shannon and I both agreed that Ska’s aptly named Decadent was too sweet, bordering on cloying. We disagreed, however, on Shannon’s favorite, Hoptimum. At 10.4% alcohol by volume and 100 IBUs I found it overbearing, resulting in a split decision on the wisdom of hopscilation.
The overall winner of the night, though, was . . . us! Six great beers paired with an awesome homemade Gai Pad Bai Gaprow, lots of music and tons of fun. We hereby declare Hop-a-Palooza a roaring success.
With 3,145 more IPAs to try, Hop-a-Palooza II is a forgone conclusion.