Hobbies and Hopheads

For longer than I can remember, my hobby has been talking about the fact that I should get a hobby. As a jack of all trades and a master of some, the question that has plagued my ADD curiosity has been "what would I rather be doing than working?" Some people rush leave the office early to play golf, some to work out, some to ride their bike, and others to read fiction. And, while these things interest me from time to time, they and all other search results for the term "hobby" don't seem to fit into my life right now. So Annie, being the wise woman that she is, pointed out that I really like beer. And, while that is true, my interest in it really picked up last February when I realized that there were certain beers that I liked more than others and that there were quantifiable reasons why.  That revelation came while eating the best burger in all of New York (and therefore the world) with my friend Keith. When the Dumont Burger arrived, so did my Hop Rod Rye from Bear Republic. Before sinking my teeth into the insanity that ensues for your taste buds when eating gloriously perfect burger, I raved about my beer. Keith pointed out that, if I like that beer and others in with the same taste, then I was probably a Hophead (one who loves IPAs.)I took that hypothesis and set out to prove it. For the next couple months, if I saw an IPA on the menu, I ordered it. I got to know the flavors and discovered that I was indeed a Hophead.

But, it wasn't until I downloaded Untappd to my phone in December 2012 that I started to know why I loved one beer over another. As they say, "What gets measured it what gets managed." With a way to keep track of the brews I was sampling, having a beer at the end of the week became more than just a way to kick back and relax. It became an event and intentional quest to know why I liked what I like and how to explain it. Going into this new year, I decided that I would try and focus on one type of beer each month and learn what characteristics made that beer unique. Being a Hophead, obviously January was a month full of IPAs.

All told, I tried 33 different IPAs last month. Sounds like a lot seeing as January only has 31 days, but, with three different business trips mixed into the conversation and some time to kill at airports waiting for the red eye back to NYC, it works out just about right. There were some definite winners and some incredible losers in this quest. There were beers that I sipped incredibly slowly to savor the taste and the moment and others that I sent back because they had as much character as a Bud Lite (worst beer in the world.)

Sampling that many different IPAs from around the world last month I began to truly understand what it was that attracted me to this style of beer and why I enjoyed each sip. The original IPAs (Indian Pale Ales) were crafted for British Troops stationed in Calcutta, India. The traditional English Ales wouldn't be able to survive the journey around Cape Good Hope in Africa and back up to the Indian ocean so extra hops were needed to prolong the life of the beer. The hops added a bitterness to the beer that became distinctive and recognizable. These original IPAs might be one of the better examples of the phrase "necessity is the mother of all invention."

But then American brewers got a hold of the idea of the Pale Ale and claimed it as their own in the 1980s. Because the microbrewery industry was at its infancy, the Pale Ale was an appealing option for a young California brewery because it was quicker to create than the traditional American Lagers and could take advantage of the West Coast hops available regionally.  As the big and bold West Coast hops made their mark on the microbrewery scene in America, the American IPA rose to preeminence and became the calling card of many small scale brewery operations.

As I sipped and tasted these 30+ IPAs last month, I was drawn to the bitter start, the malty middle, and the smooth finish that most American IPAs share in common. Hints of grapefruit and citrus flavors were common as well as aromas of pine needles and  black currents muddled in the mix. As I continued to be drawn back to the complex flavors that carried their way from start to finish in these amazing IPAs from January, I was curious why I was such a big fan. It wasn't until I went back and consulted The Brewmaster's Table by Garrett Oliver (head of Brooklyn Brewery) that I picked up on my natural inclination. The flavors and personalities of a good IPA compliment and pair perfectly with foods that carry heat, citrus, and strong starches in their cuisine. Specifically, Latin and Mexican food. The citrus from a carne asada plate mixed with the sharp cheeses of a spicy enchilada pair beautifully with the hints of grapefruit and the cutting bitterness of an IPA. The heat from this kind of food is cooled down by the smooth finish of the IPA.  My palette growing up in Texas and on Tex-Mex four times a week was shaped to love and appreciate what an IPA has to offer.

For a full list of the IPAs that I sampled last month, check out my tab on Untappd HERE.

There were obvious winners like Pliny The Elder and surprises like Greenport Brewing Company Other Side IPA. But all in all, it was a great first month of tracking a hobby I've had for over a decade but just now realized was a hobby.

So here's to the great IPAs of January and on to the strong Stouts of February. If you have any suggestions on either style of beer, or want to recommend what style I should sample in March, let me know in the comments below.