beer scene retrospective
I started drinking beer about 9 years ago. My first beer was a perfectly respectable Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I was 22 (almost 23) and I knew that I had seen a lot of other people drinking this, so I would give it a try. I was not expecting it to taste so much like grain—corn in particular—and I was like, “I'm not sure I care for this.” But you order it, you finish it.
My second beer, and the first six-pack I bought, was Sierra Nevada Torpedo. I had precisely 6 ounces before deciding that was enough and putting the bottle back in the fridge.
After that, I branched out into Long Trail and Magic Hat, because in 2010, they were reliable and recognizable New England beers. I tried a lot of different ales, and by that fall had started getting into some stouts and porters. I don't remember at what point along the way I became a hop-head, absolutely craving the bitterness provided by IPAs, but it was definitely before they became the token beer, the ones that dominate tap lineups, brewery offerings, and conversation between beer bros. At that point, you could go to a bar and there would be one or two IPAs, plus lagers, stouts, brown ales, porters, hefeweizens... I could go on. At my local taprooms, you're more likely now to find 2-3 IPAs, most of which will be NEIPA, a stout, and maybe a lager.
It was a really fun few years in my life. At that point I knew next to nothing about what I liked, so I tried tons of things. There were some flops. Back then, cider wasn't available the way it is now, so I bought Woodchuck Granny Smith thinking it would taste like, you know, Granny Smith apples—which I love. It tasted like melted apple Jolly Ranchers. I ended up making beef stew with it.
The first sour I encountered? Dogfish Head Festina Peche. I thought something was wrong with it. I just didn't know. I didn't like everything I had, but that was okay, because I was in information-gathering mode, and so I tried EVERYTHING. Including the sampler pack from Sam Adams, which even then I realized was pretty forgettable.
Restaurant beer offerings have changed so significantly in the past few years, a newer beer drinker might not appreciate how easy it is to find craft and local options on tap literally almost everywhere, even at chains.
The IPAs of the mid-2010s were almost all West Coast style. They weren't called that then, they were just called IPAs. They were by and large piney. If there was citrus, it was astringent, leaning more towards grapefruit than orange. You could see through them, in most cases. The IBUs varied, but this was before the phase of "this is going to hurt"-high IBU IPAs which would hit in the mid-2010s. It's like hot wings, in my opinion. There's a level of heat or hops at which one is no longer enjoying it. So they were heavily hopped, but not crushingly so, and you still tasted a fair amount of malt.
So in the late 2010s, when NEIPA (New England IPA) started to come on the scene, I was initially excited. I thought, hey, they're hazy, they're unfiltered, this is interesting. And I had some which were genuinely just an unfiltered West Coast IPA - I like those. But I thought the lack of bitterness in the majority of them was a bug, not a feature. And then recently I've had a couple which were bad, like, go home and puke bad. I still don't know exactly why this is happening: poorly brewed, dirty tap lines, actual bacteria, or a function of my stomach chemistry not enjoying the extra lactose. Don't know, don't care. After realizing I was never going to find a NEIPA that actually tasted bitter, I lost all interest. You can only have so many citrus juice explosions ("juice bomb" is the term you'll see tossed around a lot) before starting to miss the pine and grapefruit of yore. What's interesting is that NEIPAs have become a "gateway IPA" for many people who otherwise wouldn't touch one, and that includes a lot of women. Hashtag inclusivity. I'm not going to lie: when you say you like IPAs and you mean NEIPAs, we're talking about almost completely different things at this point.
As I'm writing this, I'm drinking a Long Trail Cranberry Gose. I've gotten into goses this summer. Sour ale, by the book brewed with salt & coriander, and usually some kind of fruit flavor. This is fine. I like acid, and this is a way for me to have a beer that isn't a massive IPA in this heat. I've gotten into ciders pretty strongly in the past year or so too - the cider scene has exploded, and they're not sickly sweet if you don't want that. (In fact, I had a gose-style cider that I'm still thinking about. It was sheer joy in a can.)
I mean, cider! Cider gets its own paragraph! You can get depressed pretty easily about some of the less-popular beer styles all but disappearing, you can miss West Coast IPAs, you can mourn the lost innocence and wonder of the way the beer scene was 7-10 years ago before it was hip to be double dry-hopped, but it's hard to not be really happy about the absolute boom of cider. With an increasing number of people choosing to forego gluten for a variety of reasons, cider is having a heyday our 1800s ancestors could not possibly have imagined. Good cider is just apples, no sugar added, and then the dryer the cider, the less sugar remains in it anyway. Whenever I have one I say "I am having a low-carb health beverage" and I mostly believe myself.
In writing this and remembering how much fun it was exploring, I'm kind of reminding myself here, but also urging you: taste some things you wouldn't normally. Most breweries are happy to let you do so provided you buy a pint or flight of something. Track everything on Untappd because you won't remember any of it anyway. Do tastings at home with friends, even if that's just 3 or 4 of you with a couple good beers apiece. Expand your palates! Demand more IPAs that don't lean on the Citra crutch! (There's another piece that could be written here about the dangers of creating a citra-heavy hop market which will lead to a monoculture which will lead to disease and then a citra shortage, but for now I'm just going to leave that prediction here...)
I recently bought another 6-pack of Torpedo. It's not my favorite, but it's still so solid. With the beer market continuing to explode in some ways and implode in others, it's too easy to get distracted by this new offering with that fancy label - never hurts to return to our first loves, the flagship beers by the industry stalwarts. Classics are classic for a reason. Happy drinking!