LAST YEAR, I wrote one of the most polarizing statements of my food criticism career: I don't like IPAs. India Pale Ales, to me, are a hoppy blowout that sends a coppery bitterness sliding straight down the back of my tongue. They also happen to be the "official" beer of the entire West Coast—so much so that of the nearly 200 microbreweries in Oregon, fewer than 10 have never made one ["Hop Along, IPAs," Lush Life, Dec 10, 2014; "MOAR Oregon Breweries That Reject IPAS!!," Blogtown, Jan 13].
"There have to be a few palate-pleasing IPAs out there for you!" the beer geeks tweeted and typed. (Followed by other choice internet words.) Challenge accepted. I connected with Ezra Johnson-Greenough, founder of the much-read New School beer blog (newschoolbeer.com), bartender, event organizer, and all-around suds wizard. He culled the bounty at the Belmont Station bottle shop and selected eight IPAs that might draw love from hop cynics like myself. Without a hint of snobbery or condescension, Johnson-Greenough walked me through each, many chosen for fruity elements and lighter hops. More than a few were made with the tangy, funky wild Brettanomyces yeast (AKA "Brett"), which is so damn hot right now.
As my tongue adjusted to the hops, the job got easier, but beyond my top three picks, I probably wouldn't buy any of them again. Still, I will cede my previously hardline anti-IPA stance. I do like some IPAs, especially when the hops are balanced out by other elements, providing a rounder experience. Here's my ranked "baby steps" IPA list:
1. Ballast Point Brewing Company Grapefruit Sculpin
Alcohol: 7%, IBU: 70
Ballast, based in San Diego, is famous for its Sculpin IPA, which is a classic, bold beer full of hops, Johnson-Greenough says. I love Campari, and the Grapefruit Sculpin reminded me of that liqueur, with the bitter grapefruit popping off the hops and creating an uber-tart, layered flavor. It was like a radler, but with bite. (While most of my top choices were close to Johnson-Greenough's, he put this at #5 on his ranking.)
2. Anchorage Brewing Galaxy White IPA
Alcohol: 7%, IBU: 50
Beware: Just because it's a white IPA doesn't mean it's lighter on the hops. But this Alaskan beer is a hybrid of my favorite kind of beer, a Belgian wheat beer hopped like an IPA. That Brettanomyces tang is big, and the golden brew doesn't leave a copper trace behind on my tongue. Seriously good stuff. (This was Johnson-Greenough's favorite of the night.)
3. Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel
Alcohol: 9%, IBU: not listed
Shocking: Beer nerds have strong opinions about Belgian IPAs. Many mock them. And indeed this may be a triple-hopped beer to European pansies, but here, its flavor profile is that of an American Pale Ale. Still, it's got a strong farmhouse flavor and plenty of spice. European hops are more floral, Johnson-Greenough said.
4. Mikkeller Invasion Farmhouse IPA
Alcohol: 8%, IBU: not listed
Another "Brett" IPA that stole a little piece of my heart. The brewers, Johnson-Greenough explained, are nomads from Northern Europe who brew where they can. This one, the bottle says, was brewed at the home of my #2 IPA, Anchorage Brewing. It's cloudy and gold like a Hefeweizen, with a sweet aroma. The Invasion Farmhouse was one of the first IPAs made with Brettanomyces, and it did well to inspire the trend. It's a very funky beer, and I would've killed for some stinky cheese to really set it off.
5. Stone Cali-België IPA
Alcohol: 6.9%, IBU: not listed
I got a strong smoky flavor off this puppy, although my expert companion disagreed. This was just okay—fairly bitter, but with some interesting flair.
6. Gigantic Brewing Company Pipewrench
Alcohol: 8%, IBU: 85
Aged three months in Ransom Old Tom Gin barrels, this IPA has got juniper spices to spare. There's zero metallic bitterness, but there's also too much happening. It's novel as a first sip; after half a glass, my tongue was tired.
7. Stone Enjoy After 12.26.15 Brett IPA
Alcohol: 7%, IBU: 70
We cheated. This beer isn't supposed to be cracked until after—well, you get it from the name. But Johnson-Greenough said it was a last-minute addition to add some variety. I bet that in a year's time the too-hoppy flavor will have mellowed.
8. Green Flash Le Freak
Alcohol: 9.2%, IBU: 101
This was a Belgian-style IPA gone awry. It's an Imperial IPA, meaning it's got twice the hops. This San Diego brewery is a legendary West Coast IPA producer—they should probably stick with their signature brew. (This was also Johnson-Greenough's least favorite.)