It is, without a doubt, the most contentious style of beer in the United States. A brewery with a good IPA can go from “unknown” to “noteworthy” with one batch of beer. The lousy ones? Quickly forgotten. And even if a brewery has a spectacular pilsner or a knockout hefeweizen, without a good, solid IPA? The cost of entry is way higher. It’s doable. But rare.
Regarding the good IPAs, this is where the “passionate beer fans” (ahem) are at their, um, “most passionate” (I am trying very, very hard to be nice). I frequently liken it to hearing two indie music fans arguing over the merits of Gogol Bordello. Actually, for this simile, Gogol Bordello is probably too well known. Any band I could list here, in fact, would be too well known.
So what makes IPAs such a hotbed of debate? What about them inspires such passion in American beer fans? Well, I can tell you the what but not the why. That what is that IPAs lend themselves to extreme flavors more so than other beers. In other words, I can crank up the bitterness on an IPA to stratospheric levels. I can build in a robust malt bill to balance it out. And the end result is the type of thing that will leave you gagging — and coming back for more. This passion is noticeably absent from, say, brown ales.
But, here’s the quirky thing. Stouts also lend themselves to extreme flavors. I defy anyone to drink an Avery Mephistopheles and not come away contemplating its many qualities (stewed cherries? Chocolate?) as if it were a fine wine. And yet, stouts don’t hold the same “pop” appeal as IPAs. Is it something about hops? It has to be. But why? That, I don’t know.
And so, with that, here are our favorite IPAs. You will disagree. You will undoubtedly have something from BrewDog or Russian River or Bell’s that trumps my list. You will note that many of these, technically speaking, are imperial IPAs. You will be angry at me. But remember, that’s the beauty part of drinking beer. We can toast each other, agree to try each other’s favorites, and then end the night playing darts and singing stadium rock.
Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
For those who have never had the pleasure of drinking a Dogfish Head – or who don’t understand why we’re involving a time limit in the name – a little history. Sam Calagione, the handsome, charismatic, goofy poster boy for the extreme beer movement, was once upon a time the broke New York roommate of Ken Marino (from The State, Party Down, Wet Hot American Summer, Veronica Mars, Reaper, and just…gosh, everything good everywhere). At some point, Sam caught the brewing bug, and he dedicated himself to new, interesting beers. Remember, at this point, nobody was thinking very far beyond the “hops, water, yeast, barley” model. And Calagione has since built his brewing empire on the backs of bulletproof brewing vessels and berries imported from the arctic. He’s a pretty radical dude with pretty radical ideas.
In his early days, he noticed that most recipes demand that you simply pour hops into your beer in one fell swoop. Once day, while watching a cooking show, he noticed that the chef continually sprinkled pepper into his soup over the course of a whole hour. Well, Calagione thought this was brilliant, so he took the idea to brewing. His set up? An old school, electronic football game. He put the hops on, turned the sucker on, and over the course of 60 minutes, infused his beer with the trademark Dogfish flavor.* And thus, the eminently drinkable Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA was born. And it was – and is – excellent.
*I actually think the trademark Dogfish flavor is due to their yeast, but that’s for another article).
In my opinion, the 90 Minute IPA is even better. As you might expect, hops are peppered in for an even longer. There’s more malt, there’s more alcohol, there’s more of that toffee-ish flavor that DFH has in droves, and it’s awesome. Careful if you’re watching your weight, though. These beers clock in between 300-400 calories apiece.
I remember my first Stone Ruination the way baseball fans remember their first visit to Yankee Stadium. I was with my family on a random vacation in Cape Cod (we are not “Cape Cod” people. This was one of only two times I had ever been). Where I lived at the time did not carry Stone Ruination, but my beer friends and I had heard legend of this awesome beer through whispers of the Internet. I had to have it.
When I took my first sip of that 22-ounce bomber, I saw colors that I’d never seen before. The hops were big, bitter, and aggressive enough that the beer did as it claimed in its name – my taste buds were ruined. This was not a beer to pair with food (save for only the stinkiest of blue cheeses or strongest of cheddars). It was huge. It was powerful. It was painful. And I wanted more, more, more.
Stone is arguably the most aggressive brewery out there (they make a habit of openly insulting you on their bottle copy, most notably Arrogant Bastard) and they’ve infused every bit of personality into this beer. It is indeed not for the faint of heart. But it’s delicious.
Sierra Nevada Torpedo
Sierra Nevada, along with Anchor and New Albion, was one of the breweries to help reignite passions for American brewing following two World Wars and an era of Prohibition. Our once-proud history, inspired by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, had been wiped out. And it was only through the flicker of hope from these three breweries that I’m even writing this article today.
If you drink beer, then you have had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It is, rightfully, a “rite of passage” beer. If you’re less familiar with their other offerings, let me say that, in my personal opinion, they are arguably the best brewery in the country. They don’t often tread into extreme waters, instead typically opting for “Stout.” “Porter.” “Brown Ale,” and the like. Each of which tastes like a textbook example of what a style should be.
That’s why, when Sierra Nevada goes extreme – you pay attention. Sierra Nevada Torpedo is blessedly available in many of the same stores as their flagship pale ale. It’s big and beautiful and responsible for more than a few of my “next-day headaches.” I heartily recommend it.
And this, friends, is the IPA that started it all for me. Perhaps I should have started the article with this beer as I did my craft beer drinking career. I was at the Draught House in Austin, TX. This was maybe 2006 or 2007. I had heard the buzz around IPAs and I was ready to try them for myself. I selected Lagunitas. I don’t remember why. Maybe the bartender recommended it.
And I thought it tasted like vegetable soup.
Of course, beer fans worldwide will recognize that lovely flavor as being “hops.” And this was my introduction. Lagunitas IPA is, without a doubt, a “gateway” IPA. It can be the launch pad that ultimately leads you to 15% triple IPAs. But as a starting point, it’s delicious. Lagunitas is a terrific brewery anyway (we’ve actually reviewed their Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ here before). And their IPA is absolutely deserving of flagship status. And by the way, I’ve doomed myself to picking up a six pack tonight. Wish me luck.
So, now that I’ve ruffled feathers and rattled cages – what are your favorite IPAs, readers? I’m eager to hear your comments below. Please be gentle.
Brian Cullen writes about beer when he’s not drinking it. You’ll notice that there are usually weeks in between beer articles. really, really enjoys robots but doesn’t understand how they work. He also enjoys drinking beers, and has a pretty solid understanding of how that works. You can read about his musings about both on Twitter @BucketCullen.
Brian worshipped The Drunkest Gods of Beer and proved The Inside of a Maserati Is The Happiest Place on Earth.