… are we allowed to stop pretending to like IPAs?
Don’t let me be misunderstood. I’ve had a fair number of India pale ales, and I’ve even enjoyed some of them. Ballast Point’s Sculpin remains a summer go-to for me, and once in a blue moon Dogfish Head or even Harpoon can provide some nice variety to the 5pm rotation, but the aesthetic tyranny of heavy-duty bitters in the US has been probably the sorriest legacy of the Obama years, at least on the potables front. At some point everyone on the Eastern seaboard sat up and decided that the workhorse lagers that saw us through two World Wars and a showdown with the Soviet Union simply would not do anymore, and IPAs are what came to replace them.
In fairness, a lot of American lagers are pretty terrible. Budweiser’s alcohol content barely qualifies it as beer, and there’s a reason that the last time Pabst won any sort of formal recognition was in the 19th century, with its eponymous Blue Ribbon. American lagers stereotypically don’t really taste like much, and that’s often a just criticism. The initial popularity of IPAs can be attributed to that—IPAs as a category at least taste like something, which is a leg up over a lot of American mass-market beers.
That is all fine and good. The problem came later, when people decided that if a little of something was good, more must be better, leading to a decade-long hops and IBU arms race—who can make the most outrageously flavored, bitter beer and charge eight bucks a pint for it? The poor American people were led to believe that “good beer” meant “beer that is difficult to drink.”
Now, the superficial problem here is that there are lots of beer varieties that have more flavor than American pale lagers but also aren’t IPAs. Lots of people who could be happily consuming porters or wheat beers are drinking beers that taste like cleaning fluid because it’s presented as the only real alternative to Bud Lite. Beer is fun, and it’s a lot more fun when you can try a lot of different things, and IPAs are as stupid a thing to crown supreme as double stouts or lambics.
But that doesn’t touch The Big Problem™. The Big Problem™ is that IPAs have given people who might have otherwise been normal and happy something upon which to plant their flags of snootiness, and being snooty about beer is idiotic. I went to college in the midst of the Obama years, and the posturing and thrusting about artisanal ales at parties was a perfect reflection of our Drinker-in-Chief, who you have to admit, whatever your political persuasion, was a smug patrician bastard. (His preference for Stella Artois deserves its own rant.) Beer was invented way back in the Bronze Age or earlier as a way to preserve cereals in a relatively vermin- and spoiling-free way. The builders of the Pyramids drank it by the quart. Beer is about nutrition and about refreshment; it’s the workingman’s drink. Being a snob about beer is like being a snob about work boots—yeah, you can get calf’s leather and hand-worked broguing and brass studs or whatever, but turning it into a reified object is kind of precious and kind of stupid. For most everyone’s purposes, Roebucks do the job best—a no-frills, reliable friend.
IPA-lovers and their attendant snobbery take work boots and turn them into an occasion for being smug bastards. The irony is underlined by the IPA’s origin story: the extra hopping and higher alcohol content were intended to have preservative effects so that beer could be shipped to British colonies. The IPA was born as a practical beer, not some prissy contest about how many IBUs you can jam into a beverage before people will stop buying it. I recognize that people have varying tastes; some people genuinely like IPAs, even IPAs that are (to my tastes) a lot to take. Yet I tend to get kind of suspicious of people’s sincerity when everyone at a party turns up his nose at a solid regional lager like Narragansett or Yuengling or a low- to mid-range import like Guinness in favor of Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA. Are we drinking beer or are we virtue signaling here?
The optimists among us say that we’re looking at the dawn of the American workingman’s renaissance and initial signs show that the snobs seem to be on the run. I don’t know if the rollback of smugness is upon us, but I hope that we can at least put this dismal period of beer culture behind us and go back to, I don’t know, actually liking things again.