by Stephen Beaumont
During a conversation in the mid-1990s, an American beer writer friend remarked to me how great it would be if people were to drink Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as they then did Budweiser or Bud Light, choosing the now-iconic ale as their primary go-to brew. My response, which he was decidedly not expecting, was that no, it would not be great at all. It would, in fact, be the exact same thing.
You see, then as now I viewed variety as the single greatest result of this whole microbrewery/craft beer movement. We as a North American beer drinking public weren’t going from drinking a single bland beer to drinking a single more flavourful beer, but rather moving from drinking out of habit to drinking for taste and discovery. They key wasn’t hoppiness or maltiness or strength, it was choice.
And then arrived what I have taken to calling “the IPA juggernaut.”
Increasingly during my travels these days, I come across people who declare themselves to be steadfast IPA drinkers. Not for them is the chocolaty malt of an abbey style dubbel or the refreshing delicacy of a golden kölsch or even the more subdued bitterness of a pale ale. No, they want a wallop of hops or nothing, regardless of circumstance.
Now, I fully understand the allure of an IPA. I completely get why the style and all of its ever-expanding family of derivatives has become the seemingly unstoppable craft beer movement it most assuredly is. I like hops and sometimes there is nothing I crave more than a great big slap upside the head of Cascade or Centennial or Citra.
But I equally like the quenching character of a helles, the clean malt of a bock and the rich roastiness of an Imperial stout, the appetizing crispness of a pilsner, the tangy bite of a gueuze and the food-friendliness of a brown ale, as well as the innumerable other flavour experiences made available through the huge growth of both domestic and imported craft and traditional beer.
I also like pairing my beer with my food, which can be a tough proposition if monstrous bitterness is the only tool you have at your disposal. I like providing my guests with a selection of beers from which to choose, and by “selection” I don’t mean black, white, fruit, double AND regular IPA. And when I go to a bar, sometimes I prefer to progress in my beer choice from mild to hoppy, lighter to stronger, rather than from hoppy to hoppier to hoppiest.
When we all got started on this wild craft beer ride some three decades ago, it was to Belgium that many of us looked for inspiration, brewers and drinkers alike, and what impressed and still impresses about Belgium is the eccentricity, personality and, most of all, remarkable variety of its beers. Not for Belgians is the mundaneness of a single style or three, as witnessed by even the lowliest of local bars, which almost by definition will stock beers of at least seven or eight wildly diverse types.
We have that now, too, but I fear that if we continue in our IPA-centric ways, we risk losing real choice and selection and devolving to multiple variations on a single bitter theme. Which, in the end, would be no different than a bunch of similarly styled pale lagers, just a whole lot hoppier.