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What’s the Deal With IPAs in the PNW?

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THAT DAMN IPA THING

SPONSORED BY VOLSTEAD ACT

Born out of 19th century British soldiers’ need to keep their ale fresh on yet another 6-month journey to exploit another far-off population (hence “India” Pale Ale), IPAs these days are ubiquitous and particularly virulently worshipped in our neck of the woods. The key ingredient to the lasting freshness that allowed the British to stay happy on their genocidal ventures?  Hops. Loads of them.

Hops are the flowers of the hop plant Humulus lupulus. In addition to preserving the British overlords’ beer (through their magical beta acids), they also imbue an ale with deliciously bitter flavor, along with floral, fruity, or citrusy flavors and aromas. Depending on the variety, hops can accomplish just about anything you need them to. Throw a few in to mask a yeasty flavor (ewww), or dry-hop for the crisp aroma without the bitter flavor. Although the actual amount that goes into a brew is relatively small, hops have come to dominate the American craft beer passion. Exhibit A: the bearded young man behind the bar at any renovated industrial warehouse brewery space waxing philosophic over the floral, citrusy notes of the Amarillo hops, or the flowery, slightly spicy hints that you get from the Cascade variety.

This gets annoying, of course. Yet IPAs still make up the largest percentage of any craft beer brewed in the US — currently around 25%. But here in the Pacific Northwest, we seem to appreciate them on a different level. We can’t help but wonder from time to time what makes our corner of the country slavishly devoted to IPAs. Lucky for you, Booze Bible did the homework.

WHY WE CAN’T GET ENOUGH

It just so happens that the PNW is the place to grow the flowery little devils that make IPAs IPAS. Yakima Valley alone accounts for almost 75% of the nation’s hops. If you add the rest of Washington, Oregon, and North Idaho, that number goes up to 97.8%. And if the Northwest likes anything, it’s drinking “local.”

While other areas of the country are forced to skimp on hops because of costs, supply, or transportation, we’re dumping them in by the bucket. As the craft beer industry starting taking off in the US, the Pacific Northwest led the way; opening a brewery in Washington and Oregon in the early days was significantly easier than in most of the country. Thankfully, we lucked out on some lax laws dealing with this issue. People took advantage, with microbreweries popping up all over the region. Currently Washington has the second-most breweries of any state, and Oregon is first in breweries per capita. An early start gave the Pacific Northwest time to experiment and evolve, developing a uniquely American version of craft beer. The savior that led us on this revolution against big brewing and light beer? You guessed it: Delicious, local, PNW hops.

In the early days, the IBU (International Bitterness Units) was the go-to way to evaluate IPAs. This very roughly translates to the amount of hops added to the brew. Breweries like Rogue, Stone, Lagunitas, and Dogfish Head began a hops “arms-race” through the 90’s and 2000’s. They spent this time stuffing as many hops into their beers as possible. Though the experts agree that the average person can’t discern a difference above 60 IBUs, Dogfish Head was churning out craft beers as high as 658. As a result, IPAs quickly got a bad rap during those years for focusing on exponentially high numbers instead of balanced, innovative flavors. Luckily, this ridiculous approach has (mostly) come to an end, with brewers finally focusing on quality over quantity.

NOW CHUG IT

These days, just about anyone can find their preferred style of IPA to suit their tastes. There’s the traditional English IPA (light and dry), the West Coast IPA (bitter, with its citrusy, “weedy” characteristics), Triple IPAs (for those who still haven’t given up on IBUs or just like talking about them), even Session IPAs, which, as the name implies, can be sipped all day without sacrificing your ability to carry on a conversation. The Hazy IPA, which get their name from the “hazy”, unfiltered style, most recently seems to  be taking over local taphouses. It’s the golden age of craft brewing, and we in the PNW live in the heart and soul of it. Next time you savor one of these microbrew miracles, say a little “Thank You” prayer to our native son, the flowery hop plant, and proceed to get smashed.

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Bryan

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