Editor’s note: This “Beer Me” column first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #144, published in August 2009. Words and photo by Alastair Bland.
Hopheads: these loud and influential beer drinkers have been slapping their dollars on brewpub countertops for two decades now, demanding the bitterest beer in the house. The India Pale Ale satisfied them for a while, but soon enough a measly 40 international bittering units, or IBUs, no longer did the trick. Hopheads rallied for more, and brewers listened. In the mid-1990s, beer-makers brought us the Double, or Imperial, IPA. Some of these specimens weighed in at 60 or 70 IBUs, often with the alcohol level boosted several points for the sake of balance.
But the future of brewing continues to unravel before us, producing new marvels of malt and barley, and hopheads today find true monsters in the widening world of beer. Debate reigns over whose beer is the bitterest, who officially invented the Double IPA, and how bitter a beer can be before human taste buds no longer discern variation. Some say 100 IBUs marks the official limit of human sensory detection, but we’ve found some freaks of brewing that go beyond. Notably, Dogfish Head’s quadruple IPA—an almost arbitrary denomination at that point—measures 120 IBUS. Named 120 Minute IPA, it runs 18 percent ABV and carries 450 calories in a 12 ounce bottle. Whether 120 Minute IPA is a sort of tongue-in-cheek brewing joke or not is uncertain, though the bottle touts itself “the holy grail for hopheads.” Other super IPAs also go by majestic names. One, from Russian River Brewing Company, calls itself Pliny the Elder, and its brother beer goes by Pliny the Younger. In these IPAs, hops evoke profound wisdom. Great Divide Brewing Company makes Hercules, suggesting brute masculine strength. Founders Brewing Company makes Devil Dancer, conjuring dark sex and corruption. Marin Brewing Company calls its White Knuckle IPA, warning us that we’d best fasten our seatbelts.
Hops, clearly, incite melodrama among brewers. Maximus is another grandly-named IPA. Lagunitas Brewing Company began making it in 1993. At 7.5 percent ABV and with 72 IBUs, it was about as big as IPAs got at the time. Through the 1990s, brewery founder Tony Magee watched the hop wars around him with some amusement, he says; brewers edged their beers up and up and up, in both IBUs and ABV, like sluggers who, at the time, still pursued the 50-homerun mark as a career-capping trophy. Eventually, much of the hop growing industry, based largely in Washington and Oregon, actually reshaped itself to accommodate the trend; growers replaced many of their “aromatic” hop varieties with “high-alpha” varieties—exceedingly bitter hop strains that processors often reduced and refined into hop extract, a sticky and volatile paste of pure alpha acids. To make an Imperial IPA using this product is as easy as sweetening coffee with sugar, says Magee.
“Those super bitter beers are actually the easiest to make. You just take that hop extract and pile it in, and then everyone suddenly thinks you’re a hop-god.”
Lagunitas was content with Maximus and resisted the hop-heavy beer trend for a while.
“But finally we just said, ‘Fuck it,’ and we joined the bandwagon with Hop Stoopid.”
I couldn’t resist that one for a taste. I also grabbed Founders’ Double Trouble, Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA, and Bear Republic Brewery’s Hop Rod Rye, an experimental alternative grain IPA, and we fastened our seatbelts.
At 9.4 percent ABV and 86 IBUs, Founder’s Double Trouble is skewed more toward the malty end of the spectrum, though on the nose you wouldn’t know it. Brewed with no extract—just whole dried hop pellets—Double Trouble’s aroma is a fine potpourri of pineapple and passion fruit, with lesser notes of grass and licorice. It goes down thick, sweet and grainy and only slightly bitter. Before opening another bottle, remember that you’re dealing with a beer approaching the double digits. Bear Republic’s Hop Rod Rye runs 90-plus on the IBU counter and 8 percent ABV, with 18 percent rye berries in the mix—a trick that adds an extra bite to the hops. The beer smells like a thick porridge of spiced grains, with a tad of Belgian-style citrus zest. In the mouth, the beer is a wall of thick flavors, including brown rice, wheat and maple syrup. Hop Stoopid, though a self-deriding joke of a beer, is a hophead’s dream. The beer is bittered beyond reason, to 102 IBUs, blended with a ratio of just 10 percent dried hop flowers to 90 percent alpha acid extract (such a highly hopped beer would turn out like spinach soup if the brewers did not depend to some degree on extract). The acids numb the mouth and crush all nuances—spice, fruit and herbs—that might have occurred through use of hop flowers.
And last of all, the mighty 120 Minute IPA. This one is a curiosity, for the nasal-clearing aromatics expected with 120 IBUs are just not there. What you find instead are elements in common with brandy, under which lies a sweet-sour smell suggestive of raisins, hay, cherries and an active wine vat just upwind. The beer tastes like a tactful blend of port and sherry and warms the throat with smooth alcohol. It asks to be downed slowly, and don’t go for seconds. It’s already going to take 10 miles of pedaling to burn off these calories.