Monday, 8 December 2008

Harder, Faster, Bigger, Better… Double my IPA!

Our tastes change and develop. And because taste is subjective, everyone is different. My favourite cheese used to be a mature cheddar, now I want the mouldiest, stinkiest, creamiest blue I can find. A few years ago a sprinkle of curry powder was too much, now I want whole chillis, freshly ground spices and I want my mouth to tingle. I started drinking my coffee with ½ a heap of granules plus two of sugar, now it’s no sugar and three times the coffee. Booze too: Malibu and coke is now bourbon and ice; beer was lager; white wine was mixed with lemonade; Guinness started with a dash of blackcurrant to soften the roast bitterness…

But what is common about all these?!

The more we have them, the more we want them as we ‘acquire’ the taste. These acquired tastes are for those things which are unnatural to our palettes: spicy foods, dark chocolate, salty oysters. To begin we have sweet chilli sauce, milk or white chocolate, fish fingers…

But tastes change.

I got into beer by drinking lager-pop. I’d have bitter shandies. I eased into Guinness, with a shot of blackcurrant cordial. I started on ales by having smoother, sweeter dark beers, and for the last few years it has been these dark beers that I have regularly leaned towards. I love them for their richness, the sweetness, the flavour of the grain, the taste of autumn fruit, dried fruit, caramel, chocolate or coffee. I preferred them for their relative lack of hop bitterness. And I was always searching for bigger and stronger beers, winter warmer’s, barley wines, Belgian triple’s, anything black and imperial. I was a malt monster.

But my taste is changing.

It seems there are two growing divisions in the beer world. These aren’t divisions away from each other, rather two interweaving and developing trends. Both are towards the extremes of flavour; one is for IPAs and the other for stouts. These new imperial or double IPAs are mega-hopped and massively bitter; the imperial stouts are thick, strong beasts, often aged in some-kind-of barrel to impart bourbon/oak characteristics. You just have to look on Beer Advocate at the best rated beers in the world right now to see this, and the trend seems to be growing. It started in America as they brought older styles to modern drinking.

We all know the history of IPA, which was shipped from England to India with added strength and hops to stop it going off on the boat trip. While (imperial) stouts have a similar-ish background, being brewed in London in the 18th century and transported to Russian Czars. For this reason it had to be extra-strong and well-hopped to survive the distance and the extreme cold. The styles have been around ever since, but it’s only in the last years that they have become the phenomenas that they are. Any why? Because tastes change.

In beer, the change has come as drinkers want ‘more’. More booze, more grain, more hops, more character, more flavour, more extremes, more history, more age, more more more. It’s the IPAs which have really piqued my interest of late. IPAs never really did it for me. That was until I tried BrewDog’s Punk IPA (available in Tesco’s – a perfect modern IPA) and their Chaos Theory (simply amazing and currently available on their website, but hurry!). After these the malt monster in me transformed into a hop-headed thrill-seeker.

The bitterness in these beer is high, but that’s what makes them so awesome. They have a supreme drinkability which makes you want to go back for more and more. In the mouth you get the sweet caramel grain then the hops flood in and ambush your palate, making the saliva glands gush, as the tropical fruits, citrus and pine flavours come through. It’s intoxicating what a few extra hops can do to you. For me, they work because the beer develops in layers: massive malt (it has to be massive to attain the extra higher ABVs) followed by the wave of juicy hops. The reason the ‘best beers’ are the ‘best beers’ is because they are so well balanced. It’s easy to go extreme on a beer, but it’s surely much harder to make it good. The same applies to food. Look at the top chefs in the world and their food – it challenges what we think we know about eating and food combinations, but it works because of the chef’s skill and supreme palate make it work.

I find it fascinating how our taste buds change, especially with stronger flavours. Blue cheese, slippery-salty oysters and coffee are foods which take some getting used to. The same applies to stronger, bigger beers. And the limits are always being pushed. Sam Adams’ Utopia is brewed at around 27% (it’s a beer!). Your ‘standard’ imperial stout now comes in at around 10% and if it isn’t aged in a bourbon barrel for extra complexity then why bother? And where a mass-produced lager may have 5-20 IBUs (International Bitterness Units – the scale of measuring a beer’s bitterness) and English bitter 20-40 IBUs, there are some double IPAs which measure in at 120 IBUs and beyond! That’s enough to make your taste buds explode!!

Barrel-aged stouts are incredibly exciting and complex and they are brilliant to sit down with on a cold night, swirl around a snifter and sip for while. It’s sophisticated, it’s smooth, rich in flavour, it’ll make you think about the world, think about the barrel it came from, the history that it has. But a double IPA is like a rollercoaster ride with ups and downs and twists and turns. It’s fresh, fun, intoxicating and exciting. It makes you want more and more as your taste for it develops. Who knows where it’ll go from here!


  1. When I was in British Columbia recently, I was able to taste the Phillips Brewing Co. Black Toque India Dark Ale.

    Which is pretty much a hopped up, dark malty ale...

  2. Sounds fantastic! The more malt that's in there, the better. I'm intrigued by black IPA's too, unsure whether they will work - the toffee sweetness of malt is great with the huge hops, but will coffee-roast flavours work?

  3. Have a look out for some the American highly-hopped imperial stouts, like Flying Dog Gonzo or Great Divide Yeti.

    I'm not sure what you mean by 'best beers' -- certainly some of the top-rated beers at the beer-rating websites are extremely unbalanced. Some people seem to rate a beer more on its vital statistics or its rarity more than how well it's made or how much they actually enjoy it.

  4. Rarity and reputation can taint the actual enjoyment of a beer, as if the drinker is expected to LOVE it just because 200 other people have graded the beer A+. I had a St Bernardus 12 the other day and didn't think it to be special at all, then I read about it and immediately in my mind the beer got better!! It'd be interesting to see how the 'best beers' would all fare in a blind tasting!

    As for my comment on the best beers being balanced, I have always found that the beers I enjoy the most are those in which the malt, hops and alcohol all work perfectly together. A beer could be mega-hopped but it needs a large amount of malt to stop it being insipid and bitter, same for a big barley wine - if the hops aren't right then it'll be like sweet, alcoholic black tea.

    There must be something which makes the 'top' beers great - my argument is that it's their balance over the palate. Without the balance they would drift off into mediocrity, where so many other beers float around.