By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST
Rarely do I immediately address the title of these pieces until sometimes as far as halfway through. But not today.
With regards to modern IPAs, we have officially gone too far.
India Pale Ale was first brewed by Great Britain for transport to India while under their rule. They were originally a slightly stronger, more heavily hopped pale ale or extra strong bitter, which is a style extremely similar to pale ale.
The British discovered that it wasn’t merely the alcohol that acted as a natural preservative in beer, but also the hops.
As Americans, we have seemed to acquire a particular fixation on this beer style. India Pale Ale. Or by true judging guidelines, simply IPA in America because, true to history, American IPAs never went to India.
We make some respectable and very true-to-style IPAs all across this nation. But we started altering this style by brewing more and more heavily hopped brews. Then somewhere along the way, we took this style to places it shouldn’t have gone.
Bitterness is measured in something called international bittering units, or IBUs. About 20 years ago, 50 IBUs was the standard for any balanced, well-made IPA. Today, I can’t tell you how many establishments I’m in that have menu boards with a plethora of IPAs with numbers as high as 100.
Next, we started brewing IPAs with fruits like mangoes, apricots, pineapple, raspberries and grapefruit. Then we moved to ginger and lemongrass.
Smartmouth Brewing Company in Norfolk, Virginia, has brewed an IPA with Lucky Charms cereal.
I harkened back to my childhood and my grandmother trying to get me to like her beef stew by pointing out that since I like steak, and potatoes, and carrots, I must like her beef stew—which I did not.
Lucky Charms are fine I guess, if you’re eight. And I love beer, but the thought of the two of them together sounds positively dreadful.
I was speaking with a server at Post Falls Brewing Company in Post Falls, Idaho, last year, where they brew no less than nine different IPAs. It was her opinion that making so many variations of IPA was a positive thing in that it provided great exposure to the style. To which my counterpoint was that by creating so many spin-offs to the point of barely recognizing what the style was intended to be, are you really exposing someone to it in the end?
There are hundreds of fascinating beer styles from around the world that are worth exploring by today’s talented brewers. We have found a new fascination of late with the sour style. But again, in my mind, we are unnecessarily adulterating them with fruits and other adjuncts.
Steam Beer, or California common, and Cream Ale, are two beer styles indigenous to the U.S. Plus, both are still being brewed today by their respective breweries.
Cream Ale has also found new life by today’s brewers, including right here in Big Sky. But the Steam Beer – a beer brewed at ale yeast temperature with lager yeast – hasn’t taken hold on a large scale yet, unfortunately. It is a national classic.
I am all about experimentation and the creation of new beer styles. But I fear that in our quest to reach the other shore, we’ve lost sight of the one we left.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.