17 August 2015

Three letters that mean nothing

IPA, eh? What's that all about? I'm sure I'm not the only one to have noticed that this so-called beer style has come to be less and less specific over the last ten years if, indeed, it ever really meant anything at all. I'm a seasoned scoffer at the "3.6% ABV? That's not an IPA" brigade, while also holding that the term still has something to offer to the beer drinker trying to pick out hoppy beer from less-hoppy beer. As if to throw the issue into even sharper relief, Californian-Carolinan brewery Sierra Nevada, which stopped making a beer called simply "IPA" about seven years ago, has dropped three new beers into my line of sight recently, all using those particular letters.

First up is Golden IPA, the baby of the bunch at just 55 IBUs and 5.9% ABV. I imagine the true-believers squinting their eyes and reluctantly granting it a pass. Yes, it's golden, and frothy too, with a fine haze spread through it. It smells of grapefruit bubblegum and tastes spicy: that bitter herbal green hop effect is to the fore, done with classic Cascade, says the label. There's a rich golden-syrup malt sweetness acting as the perfect counterweight to the hop edge and the body is smooth, making for lovely sessionability. I can imagine drinking several in succession, with the Cascade kick reminding me on each sip that there's something here worth paying attention to.

In the middle of the trilogy, the real chest-thumping IPA: Hop Hunter, the one which almost resulted in a legal dispute with another brewery over the use of those three capitals. Distilled hop oils are what it's all about here, according to the label. Cor! Futuristic! Turns out that this is even golder than the Golden, 6.2% ABV and 60 IBUs. The aroma is sharp, grassy and dank, smelling of real hops, not a processed by-product. And while the flavour hits a lot of the same notes, it's not bombastic or exciting, adding a red onion edge to the citrus and resins but otherwise being quite calm and drinkable. Hop Hunter is another one which I think would work well by the six-pack (not that I ever buy the same beer six bottles at a time) but I reckon I'd enjoy working through a half-dozen of Golden more than this.

A twist into the dark side next, and Blindfold, a black IPA bringing us up to 6.8% ABV and 70 IBUs. And yet all I got from the first sniff-and-sip was roasted grain. It's very stouty: think molasses and liquorice and that kind of unctuous bitterness rather than any real hop action. It's easy drinking too, slipping down smoothly. But I don't get any IPA sense from it at all. It may, in fact, be one of the least IPA-ish black IPAs I've ever met. It's a pretty decent porter, though.

I wasn't sure how this was going to pan out when I started drinking the set, but I think it's come out clearly that it's time to give up on "IPA" as anything but the bluntest of blunt instruments when it comes to describing beer to your customers. Breweries will need to work harder on descriptions and drinkers will need to pay more attention if we're to communicate what to expect from a new beer successfully. And the "not an IPA" brigade can just keep digging themselves into ever-deeper holes. Everything's an IPA, if you want it to be.