17 December 2015

Why am I drinking a Pine Tree or How I came to Love IPA's

You were always on my mind.
I have a confession to make. I used to hate India Pale Ales (IPA). I loathed them with a passion reserved for the very worst cod liver oil. They tasted like bitter pine trees. I was relieved when I would share bottles because that meant I only had to have a small taste of these crazy, angry little beers. Then something magical happened; My continued quest for the perfect beer resulted in my learning and growing. My palate expanded and, oh my, how I love these beers now.

  In the beginning, there were trees. Bitter coniferous trees. "Why is my beer like Christmas?" "Who does this to beer?" "Not another one!" All the damn time. I would shudder at the thought of downing one of these bitter bastards and would pound my taster as quickly as anyone to be able to grab any other beer in the fridge. I could not detect subtle notes. I only found the pine. I would fall back to the Quantity beers I loved so much and try to forget the hoppy bastards.
About as much IPA as I could handle.
Note the Old Mil. in the back, always close by.

  I think we all begin our beer drinking days with some kind of elicit consumption. Whether it is being given a sip of the old mans beer on a hot summer day or sneaking one or two into a teenage party. Most everyone I know had the same reaction to beer back then, that it was bitter and how did anyone drink that. Of course, as time goes on, we learn to love the taste and given that most of us drank macro lagers designed to mask any kind of flavour profile, it is not surprising. Plus, getting drunk was awesome! Right? Okay, just me then.

I've discussed a couple of time my love for cheap beer. When I started tracking and trying new beers I was a dedicated consumer of Brava Light. I even had a birthday celebration with that theme, cake included. It was wonderful. I don't remember much of it after the first hour, but hey, that's what everyone does on their birthday. No? Just me again.
Brett made me a fine cake. Why do I have two beers? Because reasons.

As I progressed into the craft beer world, my first love was amber lagers. Close enough to my old regular beer that it didn't throw me off.  But they were well made with a complex flavour profile. Finding these brews led me to explore the world of English Pale Ales (EPA), which go a little farther into the toasted malt notes of nuts, bread and biscuits. But I still couldn't wrap my head around IPAs. So bitter, with a mouth puckering intensity. I kept reading about all the unique and different flavours, but I couldn't detect them.  Given it was people I trusted who were telling me about how good they were, I was really missing out.
Great Canadian version of an EPA. Plus, I kind of am a Pompous Ass.

I think I finally started to see the light about a year ago. I had smoked for about 25 years until September of 2014 when I was able to quit with the help of the Vape smoke. I know it is viewed as a sort of hipster douche bag thing now, but believe me, no way I quit without it. That is a story for another day. As most people know, when you quit smoking, you begin to regain your taste buds. Food becomes more intense and I really began noticing this in the beginning of 2015. I had moved on to pounding cans of Old Milwaukee by then to "cleanse" my palate between tasting craft beers. But these macro lagers were becoming less tasty as I was getting into all the flavours I was experiencing. Some for the first time all over again. One of those was anything citrus. For a long time, things like oranges and pineapple had sort of a overly bitter backend for me and I think that was because of the smoking. I was really starting to enjoy these old favourite foods again and in time that translated into what I started to enjoy in my beer as well.
Beautiful scene. Too bad about the beer.

As the year progressed, I began to drink less. I already documented my decision to not binge drink in a previous post, The Art of Not Drinking. I fell in love with heavily malted brews. I couldn't get enough of their flavours. Seriously, they are great. Extra Special Bitters and English Pale ales are two of my favourite styles. American Pale Ales (APA) like Nickel Brook's Naughty Neighbour were another story. When I first tried that beer, it was a disaster. All I could taste was the overpowering bitter hop essence. This was often referred to as "Hoppy for the sake of being assholes." I couldn't see the forest for the pine trees.
Lovely beer and a sweet can design too!
I started to revisit some beers this summer and discovered that a lot of these APAs had a wonderful malt backbone with caramel coming to the forefront. They were bitter, but more complex than I had initially thought. American west coast beers like Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale and Torpedo, together with Anchor Brewing's IPA became staples in my beer fridge. Seriously, they are a good transition to hoppy brews. I'll split a sixer with you if you want. While definitely bitter, their smooth, malted barley flavours gave me an entrance into the wonderful world of hops.

One of the top ten in 2015!
Then came what I called big boy beers. Imperial or Double IPAs that give you a kick in the mouth. These are beers rated quite high in their IBU, which stand for International Bittering Units. It is a scientific way to measure the bitterness of your beer. To make it simple, the higher the number, the more bitter your beer will be. There are mitigating circumstances. The more heavily roasted and malted beers, think stouts, will mask the bitterness better than a pale ale due to the flavour intensities. But in general, a big number means a beer with serious punch.

Suffice it to say that I had always struggled with any sort of bitterness, but now that I could taste again, it was off to the races. I started to detect note of tropical fruits : pineapple, mango, orange and lemon. The piney resin was still there, but now served as a component of what the beer was about and not its defining characteristic. I had heard these beers described as "juicy" but never understood what that meant. Now I did. There is, in the good IPAs, a sort of mouth watering juice like flavour that comes roaring across your tongue when you drink them. It makes for a wonderful experience.

Some local favourites like Lake Effect (Great Lakes), Headstock (Nickel Brook) and both Mad Tom and Twice as Mad Tom (Muskoka) are as good, if not better than their more well known American cousins. These beers bring all the best that "pine tree" beers have to offer the beer drinker.
Just a beauty and brewed locally.
Now that I know what I was missing, it is not uncommon for me to look for an IPA when choosing a beer to drink. Not just to get a badge on Untappd, but to savour and enjoy. There are so many variations on the style that I don't think I will ever get bored. They can challenge the taste buds in a way no other kind of beer can and that is what makes them among my favourites. Thanks to a better understanding of what I am drinking, I am no longer scared when I see a beer with an IBU of 70+. I look forward to the enjoying all their flavourful notes. You should too.
Short Pier, Long Walk from Refined Fools.
100+ IBUs.
Don't be scared.
So Damn Good.

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