In the aftermath of IPA day

Last night I listed to a brand-new podcast, the Beer Curmudgeons Pilot episode. Sayre Piotrkowski, Certified Cicerone and publican now pouring his heart and soul into the delightful Hog’s Apothecary in Oakland, teamed up with the articulate and passionate Collin McDonnell, founder-brewer up the highway at HenHouse Brewing for a conversation about IPA day and related concerns in the evolution of American Craft Beer.

It’s well worth listening. They talk with Drake’s Brewing Company’s Head Brewer, John Gillooly, who tells about the emergence of American IPA and double IPA, and the challenge of getting those hop aromas into session-strength beers, as well as giving some details from his fascinating career trajectory.

And then Sayre and Collin talk to Ray Daniels, founder of the Cicerone program, the leading private certification exam program in the “Sommelier-for-beer” space, and the author of the incredibly influential “Designing Great Beers.”

So in the second half of the podcast, love of IPA is ridiculed quite a bit. Ray gets me riled up.

Am I a hophead? I had two beers on IPA day, one of my homebrewed sours and a commercial Imperial Stout. So my buy-in to IPA day is modest. But I enjoy many different IPAs, from some of the most malt-balanced or English style to some of the driest, palest San Diego style examples. I also like a few excellent examples of session IPAs, but some seem like hoppy fizz water. (I’d actually love to be able to buy delicately hoppy fizz water with no alcohol at all, like a lemon mineral water but Simcoe, say, but that is a whole other non-beer fantasy.)

But I have a hard time with dissing people for drinking only American IPA. It’s big, bold and flavorful, a way to break with the bland international industrial lagers. It’s the most popular style in terms of craft beer competition entries in recent years, which says to me that breweries are proud of these beers. Many if not most drinkers are less adventurous in their beer tasting than brewers and cicerones and self-described geeks like me, and may stick with a craft beer style just as they stick with a “regular” cocktail that in some way defines them. If people like IPA, and a beer bar is turning over those kegs too fast, why not proudly put on more than one IPA variety? Isn’t that simply allowing people to educate themselves about the style and the joy of all the different hop flavors?

a bunch of hops at Sierra

If we replaced 1950s bars offering a dozen similar macro lagers on tap with current bars offering a dozen similar IPAs on tap, we are decidedly not right back where we started.  Presuming we still are getting these competing IPAs from small and independent companies and brewers instead of multinational concerns, we have come a long way. That’s already good for the soul and economy of the county, and the world. American IPAs are capturing the imaginations of people around the globe.

One analogy made in the podcast was the lack of sophistication in the early days of American wine, where a restaurant would carry two kinds, red and white. Now a good restaurant will stock a plethora of varietals from grapes unheard of by early wine fans.  However, the evolution of the American wine culture went through some fads, where many consumers knew to ask for Chardonnay, but no other white wine, for example. It’s just nice knowing a specific name to ask for. It’s comfortable. Stay there a while, get bored, and go for the next level, learning some new grapes. The sales of Chardonnay funded the planting of other grapes as the customers were ready to try new flavors. And those California Chardonnays made by good vintners also got better over those years. For those who still prefer that particular variety of white wine from that classic grape, there is no shame. Customers evolve, but so does the craft.

But I get it. I too am a beer snob, and a survivor of the peak IBU inflation years. I’m glad to see the hop additions moving later, giving less bitterness and more flavors and aromas to IPAs and their kin.

I just don’t see the beginnings of a mass interest in American IPA, one of the fine innovations in recent beer history, as something to discourage in general. If somebody is not trying craft beers because they dislike IPA, that’s where asking them to taste something new is doing a service for them and for beer. Or surprise them when they are ready to take another step and learn another style name. Otherwise, why mess with their preference and passion?

After all, to be honest, despite how lovely the HenHouse beers are, not all American craft saisons are all that great. Like IPAs, they can be all over the map.

Some great breweries and beer bars will cater to the adventurous and take people out of their comfort zones. But perhaps other less beer-sophisticated places where several IPAs go on tap to keep people happy are just as important in the rebirth of American beer.

Whew. Thanks for reading my counterpoint curmudgeonly rant. I’m looking forward to more from Sayre and Collin, since they bring out the cranky beer opinions in me, too, and that’s kind of fun!

Find the show here: And get out there for some great beer, hoppy or otherwise, this weekend.


Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

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