And so, fittingly, around the time of International IPA Day and International Beer Day on August 3rd and 4th, respectively, I began to sample my latest creation, the Double India Pale Ale called “Pacific Northwest”.
The beer opens with bursting grapefruit aroma, and the slightest hint of pine and herbs from the late-addition Chinook hops. Amarillo orange rounds out the fruit flavours pleasingly. The pine and resin returns in the finish, giving way to a lingering bitterness.
An important new element to the brewing process for “Pacific Northwest” was the addition of 36ml of Brupaks’ CRS water treatment to the liquor, to adjust the extreme alkalinity of Battersea South tap water. The reward is a bitterness that is substantial, but clean and defined, with nothing of the harshness from which my previous hop-forward brews had suffered.
This beer is not only about the hops, however. I am particularly pleased with the qualities achieved with the grain bill.
The wheat has given the beer a lasting, fluffy foam without compromising its golden clarity. The mix of Pilsner and Maris Otter lends it enough body to support the 7.1% ABV without being overbearing or cloying. And the Crystal malt adds the lustrous gold colour and an element of malt-and-honey that perfectly balances the fruity hops.
It was this balance that got me thinking about hop-forward beers, the relationship between beer and fruit flavours, and indeed the relationship between beer and fruit itself.
I overheard a strange conversation on social media a few weeks ago. A Beer Advocate video about the long history and stealth comeback of well-crafted lagers invited the comment: “I only drink IPA.”
Now, any serious English beer drinker who grew up through the 1980s and 90s had to learn to pity the benighted fools who insisted they would only ever consume ale and never lager. Most had only the sketchiest idea of what lager is. Somebody once asked me, after I had mentioned an interest in brewing, “Do you prefer brown beer or yellow beer?”
But IPA versus Not-IPA takes this Manicheism a step further.
To say, “I only drink IPA” is not like saying, “I prefer this or that style of beer over others”, or “Real ale from a cask has a unique profile that I particularly enjoy”, or even “I refuse to drink ‘macro beers’”. It is to confuse a style of beer – indeed, the “sub-style” of beer that is American IPA – with the idea of “real beer” itself.
And in that confusion, real beer gets lost, misplaced, abandoned.
I endure a never-ending struggle to persuade my wife out of her ruinously expensive refusal to drink any other beer than Trappistes Rochefort 10. But that is a special case and it requires no pity.
When “beer” becomes “IPA” and “IPA” has already come to mean “American IPA”, and when American IPA is distinguished by the fruity aromatic terpenes so prevalent in American varieties of hops, “beer” begins to mean “fruity”. This is a slippery slope.
In Britain the word “ale” used to describe a fermented-grain drink that did not contain hops.
We know from the records kept by Abbot Adalhard at the Corbie monastery in Picardy that hops have been added to ale since at least the year 822, but it took another six hundred years before they became an established ingredient across Europe.
Until then, beer was flavoured with “gruyt” – a mix of herbs, spices and, frankly, anything else tasty and preservative that the brewer had lying around.
Is it an accident that the oldest, so-called “Noble” varieties of hops – Hallertauer Mittelfrueh, Tettnanger, Spalter and Saaz – tend to impart herbal and spicy aromas to beer?
Fruit was another of the ingredients that used to be added to ale before hops were preferred.
It stands to reason. Fruit is tasty. It contains only fermentable sugars, which brought, with zero processing, added strength and dryness to weak and sticky grain-only beers. Fruit also lent sweetness to what would have been a funky and sour, wild yeast-fermented ale. It covered bad flavours in poorly-made beer. Perhaps most important, it gave the village something to do with the bounty of autumn before it rapidly spoiled.
The latter is probably the main reason for the re-emergence, in the 1930s, of fruit, and specifically Schaerbeek cherries, in Belgium’s Lambic brewing-and-conditioning process.
A genuine Schaerbeek Kriek is rare nowadays, but Oude Kriek, made entirely from Lambic steeped for four-to-nine months on cheaper, but authentically tart Eastern European cherries, can still be a magnificent drink.
Other sour and, importantly, foeder-aged beer styles such as Flanders Red or Brown ales also make interesting cherry beers: Brouwerij Verhaege’s Echt Kriekenbier is an excellent example. And of course, there are superb New World candidates made in these traditional ways with exquisite local fruit, such as New Glarus’s intense and moreish Wisconsin Belgian Red.
Last night I enjoyed a 2012 vintage “Mariage Parfait” Kriek from Brouwerij Boon – where 2012 is the vintage of the oldest Lambic in the blend, and 2015 probably the newest. It is a challenging but rewarding beer: tart and dry, with a lot of tannins from both the maturation barrels and the cherry stones and skins; leavened by a touch of cherry sweetness, slightly dulled by cellar-ageing; and underpinned with a real essence of the barnyard, which seems to be a unique result of the meeting of Brettanomyces yeast, and other microflora, with the cherries’ sugars.
Balance and complementarity are the keynotes in all of these ale sonatas.
If the base ales of the best fruit beers tend to be sour, funky, dry and tannin-heavy, the sweetness of the fruit is a counterpoint to those themes.
The most successful beer fruits tend also to carry tannins: they are either stone fruits or woodland berries. Cherries and raspberrries are the classic choice, but the better “experimental” fruit beers appear to follow this rule, as well: apricots in Brasserie Cantillon’s Fou’foune, for example, or purple plums in Gueuzerie Tilquin’s Oude Quetsche. Even the pulp-based Flower Sour by ’T Hofbrouwerijke, though eschewing the use of whole fruit, worked for me because it melds sweet fruit with tannin, sourness and a hint of fungal wildness.
My conclusions? First, the fruit’s stones and skins are just as important – indeed, more important – than its juice. Second, wild or mixed fermentation, and barrel-maturation, makes for a suitable base beer. Each plays a critical role in the balance between sweetness, sourness and dryness.
Fruit beers made with juice, juice concentrate, syrup, cordials or essences are not unpleasant, necessarily. They are simply not very beer-like. They are fruit juice drinks, alcopops. The malt is there merely to ferment into alcohol. And perhaps to enable the manufacturer to call its product “beer”.
Which brings us back to our social-media commentator who “only drinks IPA”, and the slippery slope that leads us to think that beer is a fruity drink – rather than a herbal, floral, spicy, sour or bitter one.
The US craft-beer pioneers understood that to get the citrus- and resin-drenched hops of the Pacific Northwest to sing most beautifully, one must provide harmonious accompaniment. That accompaniment could come from the hops themselves (a balance of bitterness achieved by embracing isomerised alpha acids); from grains (introducing some honey and biscuit flavours with Crystal and Vienna malts); or from yeast (the Double IPA was born of the desire to balance fruit and bitterness with warming alcohol and gentle, spicy phenols).
But as the American IPA style began to sweep all before it, two strange things began to happen.
The first was kicked-off by Dogfish Head itself, with the release of Aprihop in 2004. This is an IPA with added apricot juice.
The brewery’s description seems to acknowledge that this brew created something of a monster, in the shape of dozens of less thoughtfully-balanced fruit IPAs. “The beer has a hoppy aroma, with the apricot playing a supporting role,” it insists. “The flavor is rich with late hop notes, and its bitterness is tempered by just the right amount of malt sweetness and fruity undertones from the apricot.”
Well, the idea was a dangerous one, however carefully balanced in execution. Whereas a Lambic brewer takes a sour, acidic and tannin-hardened beer and complements it with the tart sweetness of cherries, Aprihop took an already fruity beer style that should be looking for balancing elements and added… more fruit.
Today, America is drowning in grapefruit, mango, guava, pineapple and tangerine pale ales. Unsurprisingly, their admirers celebrate them as being “Juicy!” Equally unsurprising, one brewer has taken to calling its Double IPA Contains No Juice, presumably for the avoidance of doubt.
The second development was the evolution of the so-called New England or Vermont IPA. Again, this appears to have originated with a thoughtfully-crafted beer – in this case, Heady Topper by The Alchemist – which was then cloned into dozens of outrageously fruity but one-dimensional dry-hopped ales.
Heady Topper, though not as bitter as its 120 IBU rating might suggest, is much more than a simple alco-juice. The lesson taken by its many imitators, however, is that skipping the addition of hops during the boil in favour of copious dry-hopping can achieve high levels of juicy fruit flavour with little of the bitterness associated with isomerised alpha acids.
The haze associated with the New England IPA style comes, not primarily from the hydrogen-bonding of proteins and tannins that causes “chill haze”, but from this excessive dry-hopping. This haze, or turbidity, is now prized as a defining characteristic of this fruity-but-not-bitter beer style. Indeed, many genuinely opaque examples are produced, suggesting a combination of hop haze and starch haze.
Until recently, this would have been considered a brewing fault. Left for any length of time it would still be considered a fault: permanent hazing agents will eventually clump together unattractively and could oxidise into some rather unpleasant aldehydes.
However, for beers designed to be consumed as fresh as possible, the haze has one very considerable advantage. It makes a beer that tastes like sweetened fruit juice look like sweetened fruit juice.
American hops are a wonder of nature and human engineering. They are truly among the most miraculous ingredients in the world of food and drink. But they make it too easy to brew tasty-but-uninteresting beer: their flavours are striking even when used clumsily; they are intense enough to cover a multitude of mistakes and infelicities; and because they can be used effectively as a standalone flavour in beer, all-too-often they are used that way.
Does a “hophead” only drink American IPA?
This obsession with a single ingredient in the brewing process is the top of our slippery slope. It encourages an ever-narrowing focus on certain elements of that ingredient, and eventually just one of those elements.
Combine that with the inevitably infantilizing effects of mass-market commodification via International IPA Days and social media (all of those high-design cans, the dew-frosted glasses of opaque, juicy New England IPAs and, heaven help us, “milkshake beers” are undeniably Instagramable) and we slide towards a place where fizzy, alcoholic fruit juice can be mistaken for beer.
What is lost is not only complexity, balance, intrigue, idiosyncrasy and challenge, but also “craft”.