For the most part, India pale ales are fine. Some, in fact, are really, really good: Maine’s Lunch and Dinner, for example, fit the bill if you’re into ELITE IPAs; most any mainstream Sierra Nevada offering does a bang-up job, and you don’t have to get a goddamn cash advance to afford one. People like to hate on IPAs–mostly because they want to hate on the people who love IPAs, which I totally get, and partly because the hop-industrial complex that is overrunning craft beer is both concerning and insane. On the merits of the India Pale Ale genre itself, though, it’s a weak case. IPAs are harsh, and they’re a bit of an acquired taste. But, Christ, isn’t all beer?
So I’m not here to denigrate the entire genus of IPAs; I’m also not looking to wrap myself to become its flagbearer in the beer debates that reach a level of, like, near-jingoism. Both IPA lovers and detractors make good points, although maybe not quite the points they think.
I think the argument that bros try–and fail–to make when they worship at the altar of IPAs isn’t that IPAs are the best beers. When they unwittingly advance such an argument, it comes across, like a bad IPA, overly strong and unpleasant. The more subtle justification is that IPAs–due to their more complex rendering of hops and ancillary ingredients–have a higher floor than any other genre of beer. The worst IPA undeniably beats the worst lager. This isn’t surprising: IPAs are more costly, more expensive. There’s a minimum threshold required to make, I don’t know, even Abita’s Andygator IPA (the worst beer I’ve ever willingly purchased), and that’s a taller task than Milwaukee’s Best is able to clear. If you’re making a blind choice–assuming cost is no object–and you’re hoping to minimize your risk of selecting a terrible beer, get an IPA.
Note that this is different from saying IPAs are the best. That’s an argument my brother made a few weeks ago, over Thanksgiving, as we stepped inside the esteemed Sam’s Quik Shop in Durham to select a few six-packs. Look at all the IPAs here, he said. When a shop like this has that many IPAs–I’m paraphrasing at this point, but it’s necessary to convey the pigheadedness of the sentiment–that’s just proof that IPAs are the best.
First of all, his claim reeks of confirmation bias; I highly doubt Sam’s selection is so imbalanced. But even if it were true, that’s a classic misconstruing of supply and demand. IPAs get stocked because they’ll inevitably get bought. While Sam’s tries to find the best beers in a particular genre, the store’s still resigned to offering what it thinks it can sell. And, as the number of people convincing themselves that IPAs are superior swells to a critical mass–which, clearly, is what’s happening in the American beer markets–the best strategy for a shop like Sam’s is to heavily concentrate on IPA sales. (I’d also imagine that IPAs, because of their perception of prestige, carry a healthier markup than other beers.) Said more simply, the phenomenon is demand-driven, and most prominently exacerbated by people firmly entrenched in the “IPAs are great” camp.
IPA drinkers also like to construct impenetrable feedback loops. They flock together. “I prefer IPAs,” says one, by way of small talk. “Me too,” says the second, in this very boring yet starkly realistic scenario. Then they abscond to the bar, offering each other recommendations on which beers are best, never fathoming dropping below 6.0% ABV or 40 IBUs. Perhaps someone joins them for the second round and offers to buy them a drink. “Another one of these,” they’ll say, posturing for their IPA compatriot while ignoring their amber-ale-drinking or, god forbid, hefeweizen-loving friend.
Entire classifications of beer, then, get tossed out in the contest of who can consume the most hops.
But this myopia cultivates something more displeasing: beer-chasing. Not the beverage itself, but the inexhaustible pursuit of having all the best beers. One of my old coworkers once talked about he preferred scotch to whisky, not because the former was better in his mind, but because it was more manageable to drink an encyclopedic quantity. Whisky (and whiskey) spans the globe, but scotch is at least confined to one country. Given enough time, you could drink your way across Scotland. Having every type of the other liquor, though, is an obvious fool’s errand.
Untappd has unlocked such a phenomenon for lager lovers: The popular app, designed for the user to rate beers and select, again, the best beer from a range of options, makes it easy to build a robust portfolio. The in-app badges, too, incent novelty in beer choice: A “Master” has 200 different beer samples; An “Elite” user has 2500. Each decision at the bar, then, contains a trade-off: Do I want what I enjoy, or do I want what will impress my digital and real-life peers?
I think, fundamentally, this is the problem with beer drinkers–and IPA drinkers, in particular. Too much choice has proved crippling; anyone who has visited Sam’s, or even just the neighborhood gas station’s now-mandatory “Beer Cave,” knows how the duration and agony of the selection scales with the breadth of options. Consuming beer is rarely never not a good time, but the average drinker needs direction. More often than not, that entails putting on blinders. Only drinking IPAs. Only drinking new beers. Only drinking the selections from a particular craft brewery–Maine Beer Co., Wicked Weed, Stone, etc.
What I hope for is a return to simpler times. It’s the golden age of drinking craft beer. There needs to be a way to simply have a favorite yet standard beer–a reliable choice, readily available. Something to drink regularly and not feel like a pud. Not every purchase needs to be a momentous event. Not every pint glass needs to come with a checklist attached and an Instagrammable pour. Corona encourages customers to Find Your Beach, but my plea actually takes a step back from that: Please, Just Find Your Beer. I’m sure it’s fine.