Seattle beer drinkers embrace their inner hophead

When you walk into Renton’s Dog and Pony Alehouse and ask the bartender what they have on tap, she’ll point to a tall, vertical chalkboard listing all 30 draft selections. At first glance it might escape you, but after a moment you will realize that the first 12 beers on the list are all the same style: India Pale Ale (IPA).

When you first recognize this fact, you might stand there scratching your head, wondering how in the world the Dog and Pony can justify dedicating nearly half of its taps to one single style of beer. More likely, if you’re like most craft beer enthusiasts around here, you’ll just stand there staring up at the board in childlike amazement, a bit confused and a bit elated, with a glassy-eyed look on your face as you try to decide which IPA you are going to drink. You will be “pony-faced.”

In Washington we enjoy a vibrant craft beer culture with more than 120 licensed microbreweries producing an impressive array of ales and lagers. Whether you want to drink Dunkelweizen, Imperial Porter, Oatmeal Stout, Vienna Lager, Saison, or Pale Ale, our local brewers have you covered; however, amongst the dozens of options, IPA has become the beer style of choice for people around here. If you’ve spent much time around any of the Seattle-area’s better beer bars, you likely will not challenge my assertion that IPA is the people’s choice.

This fascination with India Pale Ale is very interesting. After all, IPA is a strong and bitter style of beer. It is not for the faint of heart. In general, IPA is over 7% ABV and features a heavy-handed hop content which imparts upon the beer extreme bitterness or an unmistakable floral/fruity characteristic, or both. Because of its unmistakable hoppiness, IPA lovers often characterize themselves as hopheads.

The People’s Choice

Without going into too much historic detail, which inevitably triggers a debate amongst beer historians, IPA dates back to the 19th century when an entrepreneurial exporter enlisted a brewery to concoct a beer to sell to the British troops stationed in India. Either by design or by accident, it was determined that a beer with a higher alcohol level and unusually high hop content best survived the long, difficult journey to India. This strong, heavily-hopped version of Pale Ale therefore became known as India Pale Ale.

Whatever the history, IPA is all the rage these days. Some local brewers refer to this mad proliferation of heavily hopped IPAs as the IBU Arms Race. Some of the newer breweries have opted to go another direction and stay out of the fray–vowing not to make an IPA. They’ve decided to fight for market share by offering a different choice. A bold and noble, if not contrarian, approach to the current beer scene.

“During a normal month, we usually have five of our 25 taps pouring IPA (20 percent),” says Gary Sink, owner of the Beveridge Place Pub in West Seattle. “But I’d say, as an estimate, the actual amount of IPA that we pour makes up 30 percent of our draft beer sales.”

You might not think that 30 percent is a significant figure, but the Beveridge Place Pub offers a wide assortment of craft beer choices and prides itself on having something to appeal to every imaginable type of craft beer palate. The fact that one out of three customers orders an IPA is really quite amazing.

April is not a “normal month” at the Beveridge Place Pub. Instead, it’s a month-long celebration of that most hoppy of all libations. They call it IPApril. All month, the pub will have a dozen taps dedicated to beers that run at 60+ IBU (International Bitterness Units). In short, IBU is a measure of a beer’s bitterness. Although this jargon was once only familiar to professional brewers and home brewers, it is now part of the local craft beer drinkers’ vernacular. For many beer drinkers, the higher the IBU the better.

Across town at Cooper’s Alehouse on Lake City Way, they also celebrate IPA this month. From April 9th through April 30th, Cooper’s Alehouse will celebrate its 8th Annual IPA Festival. “It’s a three week celebration of all types of IPA’s—Imperial IPAs, Industrial IPAs, and just plain old IPA,” Kirbie Predmore of Cooper’s Alehouse tells us. “Over 50 IPAs will be poured throughout the festival, including only IPAs from Washington breweries for the first week.”

Brouwer’s Café in Fremont, another one of Seattle’s outstanding beer bars, celebrated its fifth anniversary last month. To commemorate the milestone, they had 10 different local breweries produce special IPAs for the occasion. Of course, they could just as easily asked these breweries to make 10 different Porters, or Stouts, or Extra Special Bitters, but they didn’t.

Down in Renton at the Dog and Pony Alehouse, it’s always an IPA festival. Jay Fischer, owner of the Dog and Pony, describes his unapologetically IPA-heavy draft selection by saying, “I know what my people like and I want to make sure they have choices.”

The wise words of a very good publican!

What do the French have to do with it?

So why has IPA become so incredibly popular around here? Maybe there are mysterious forces at work. Maybe not.

Terrior (pronounced tair-WA) is a French term most often associated with wine. It describes the way a particular region—its soil, weather, water composition and so on—contributes to a wine’s fundamental character. In other words, if it is grown here then it will taste like here. It follows that a wine that tastes like a place will have a certain appeal to people who live in that place. If a beer were going to taste like Washington, it would taste like hops.

The Yakima Valley produces 75 percent of the hops in the United States. It amazes me how often I run into people who do not know this. To me, it’s like meeting someone from Idaho who didn’t get the memo about the whole potato thing. In Washington, hops are serious business. In 1980 Bert Grant, a longtime commercial brewer from eastern Canada, moved to Yakima to open the first post-prohibition brew pub in America and brew the kind of ales he’d always dreamed of brewing. Why Yakima? You only get one guess. Hops.

Perhaps it is our proximity to the hops that fills our hearts with a thirst for beers over 60 IBU. Like moths drawn to the fire, we simply gravitate without explanation or control towards heavily hopped beers. It’s something about the air we breathe and the soil beneath our feet that makes us crave IPA.

Personally, whenever I visit the hop fields in August or early September—that time of year when the bines are high and ripe—I get giddy and find myself experiencing wholly unnatural urges. Too much information, I know. By the way, hops grow on bines and not on vines. Google it.

I asked Gary Sink of the Beveridge Place Pub for his thoughts on why we have so many hopheads around here. “Some say it’s proximity to the hop fields,” he said. “I think that’s probably part of it, but I also think it involves the local brewing community’s willingness, if not drive, to experiment. That, in turn, challenges the taste buds of the beer drinkers, and hop bitterness (and aroma) make the drinker thirsty for more.”

I want the same thing, only different

Regardless of my personal urge to go native in the budding hop fields, Gary is probably right: there isn’t anything metaphysical or supernatural happening here. It is a fact of human nature that people tend to like what they already know. It’s why classic rock radio stations play the same songs over and over again. Craft beer drinkers are not immune to this human folly; however, they balance this longing for the familiar with a strong drive to reach for something new. One of the beauties of the craft beer landscape that appeals to so many people is the variety of choices. The variation that brewers can build into their IPA provides a lot of room for creativity. It’s the same, only different.

It isn’t surprising that an IPA dry-hopped with Amarillo hops will taste significantly different than the same IPA dry-hopped with Chinook hops. Much more surprising is the number of untrained, non-expert craft beer drinkers who can taste the difference between the two beers and immediately recognize that it’s because of the hop varietals.

“Some folks like to drink the same beer every time and that’s fine,” says Gary. “Others look forward to the next new thing, and there are so many varieties of hops for the brewer to play around with, you can get a wide range of flavors in one style: IPA.”

I already know what I’m going to order at the pub tonight. It will be a big, strong IPA. It will not challenge my palate. I will not be looking for gentle nuances or subtle hints of anything. The beer I order will be more like a plate of nachos and less like a cheese souffle. It will be way too hoppy. Any malty characteristics will be totally overwhelmed by bitterness and zesty citrus overtones.

It will be horribly out of balance. It will be an IPA and it will be perfect.

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  1. Well, I guess my instincts are right in that an IPA will be among my first beers if I start a brewery.

  2. I find it painfully ironic that the Great Northwest offers dozens (hundreds?) of various IPAs while here I remain, thirsty, in the land of its original reason for creation, dying for anything other than Kingfisher, Fosters or Carlsberg. Damn Brits…couldn’t they have left even a hint of their greatest contribution behind?! Excellent article.

  3. While speaking about beer on a recent episode of Travel with Rick Steves, I heard an British fella say something funny, and strangely relevant to Linda’s situation (she’s living in India, where there is no sign of India Pale Ale). He said, “As an Englishman, you have to have a sense of humor about these things. You can’t lose an empire and not.”

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