America's Bitterest Brews
Back in the 1980's, Keystone Light commercials focused on a curious affliction: bitter-beer face. The faces of folks who sipped so-called "bitter beer" scrunched up like sideshow freaks. "Don't grab a bitter beer... grab a better beer!" the announcer exclaimed, as a swig of innocuous Keystone made their normal expressions bounce back.
But in this era of craft beer, drinkers are shunning simple brews like Keystone and Coors for coffee-seasoned stouts, burly Belgian ales and, most of all, bitter beers like the India Pale Ale, a.k.a., the IPA. According to lore, the IPA is so-called because eighteen- and nineteenth-century sailors alighted from England to India with pale ales fortified with with extra doses of hops — a climbing plant's fragrant flowering cones that act as preservatives and impart bitterness.
The "pale ale for India" eventually became the IPA. Now, the beer style has caught fire with American consumers craving bigger, bolder and ever more bitter beers. Brewers have responded by concocting potent imperial IPAs with IBUs — the international bitterness unit, a measurement of a beer's perceived bitterness — that crest triple digits. (Comparatively, Budweiser packs about 10 IBUs.)
One of the hot spots of the hoppy-beer movement is Southern California, where Escondido's Stone Brewing Co. deliciously pummels palates with its aptly named Ruination IPA. It offers 100-plus bold, bitter IBUs matched by a sturdy malt backbone. Still, this trend isn't confined to California. In Akron, Ohio, Hoppin' Frog Brewery makes the massive Mean Manalishi Double IPA, a caramel monster boasting a dizzying 168 IBUs.
Yet on the international stage, 168 IBUs is merely a stepping stone. Danish brewery Mikkeller offers the eye-popping 1000 IBU — a theoretical number, given that the bitterness doesn't sky that high. Despite the wishful thinking, this beer still "tasted like chewing on a hop field," wrote brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. "I personally loved it." Would you? Give these American-made IPAs a taste to see if you too subscribe to the "bitter is better" school of thought.