If you spend much time in the world of craft beer, you will eventually have to come to grips with how you feel about India pale ales.
They're big, bold and bitter. They're often delicious and occasionally jarring. Fortified with an extra dose of full-flavored hops late in the brewing process, they can either delight the palate or send it reeling.
It's the most popular style in the craft beer industry. It's also among the most divisive. "Hopheads" swear by it. Some beer snobs say it's too obvious, too rough, too common.
IPAs can be extraordinary, ordinary, deadly dull and downright dreadful. IPAs in the West Coast style are quite distinct, powerful brews featuring an often beautiful aroma of citrus, pine and more. The flavors, when done in balance, can bring out grapefruit, mandarin orange, or grassiness with a gentle spine of malt. But they're not for everyone.
Even Charlie Bamforth, the Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of malting and brewing sciences at UC Davis (and a British transplant), was taken aback when he arrived in California in 1999 and tasted his first West Coast IPA. Now he's a fan, but his palate needed some training.
"At first it was a bit of a shock," Bamforth said. "They were so overly hoppy." But recently, when he returned to England and ordered what he considered classic English ales, "I'm sipping them and thinking they could use just a little bit more hop."
In the Sacramento area, craft brewers are turning out some excellent IPAs. The IPA at Rubicon is a classic example and a great user-friendly introduction to this style. Track 7's Panic IPA, now available by the bottle, is a balanced yet fully hopped beer with plenty of flavor and a lingering bitterness that works especially well with food.
I've had Berryessa's IPA and double IPA and consider them both outstanding, though when I visited the brewery in Winters recently I was told by a server that they were too busy to serve flights (several small pours). Somehow the beer didn't taste as good after that, considering my 70-mile round trip just to taste their beer.
Perhaps the boldest – and arguably the best – hop-centric brewery at the moment is Knee Deep Brewing in Lincoln. Its Hoptologist double IPA has a devout following. The Simtra triple IPA is in-your-face but still very drinkable beer, though it's not for the faint of heart.
Knee Deep recently announced a $1 million expansion and relocation to Auburn. I will have more on Knee Deep's emergence and growth in a full story coming soon.
At the Raley Field Brewfest last Friday, when it was a scorching 102 degrees, I focused on IPAs only to conclude that this style, for all its pluses, is not necessarily the best thirst quencher in super-hot weather. The bitterness can build up and seem cloying. My favorite IPA that night was the Vindicator by Loomis Basin Brewing Co.
During the brewfest, I bumped into A.J. Tendick, a partner in the soon-to-open Bike Dog Brewing Co. in West Sacramento. He seems encouraged that the style continues to mature.
"While I think that many relate hoppiness to bitterness, the market is evolving from who can make the most face-twistingly bitter IPA to who can lower the alcohol and really punch you in the face with hop aroma," Tendick later said via email. "More and more craft beer drinkers are starting to associate hoppiness with the flavor and aroma components of hops instead of exclusively the bitterness."
That's what I liked about the Vindicator. It had punch, but it also showed refinement. This IPA is 6 percent alcohol by volume and a relatively mellow 40 IBU (international bittering units), whereas some IPAs are 8 percent alcohol by volume or greater and 70 or more IBUs.
Loomis Basin brewmaster Kenny Gowan says he adds 10 pounds of dry hops late in the brewing process. "That is what gives you all the aroma, that freshness, the pine needles. Pretty much all you are smelling comes from the dry hops," Gowan said.
The aromas, the flavors, the bitterness may come together best with certain foods. We'll have more on beer pairings in future columns, but here are a few suggestions for IPAs.
During a recent visit to Magpie Cafe, I had an amazing pork belly salad paired with a Firestone Walker IPA. The smooth bitterness of this excellent IPA counterbalanced the fattiness of the pork that coated the mouth and made both just a bit more enjoyable.
Gowan, a big barbecue aficionado, says pulled pork or baby back ribs – meaty, rich and smoky – work really well with IPAs.
If you find that IPAs aren't your thing, that doesn't mean you have to be out of the IPA loop. I recently dropped by Extreme Pizza and tried an English style IPA by Nevada City's Ol' Republic Brewery. It was significantly different than a West Coast IPA, with its prominent maltiness softening the hoppiness.
Saturday: Folsom Rhythm & Brews. Noon to 5 p.m. at the Palladio at Broadstone in Folsom. This is a new family-friendly event featuring six bands and 31 craft breweries. Free admission. Beer tasting kits, $25. www.folsomrhythmandbrews.com
June 29: Bell Tower Brewfest in Placerville, 6-9 p.m. Historic Main Street will be closed for the 13th edition of this event, featuring 35 or more craft breweries. $30. www.placerville-downtown.org.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.