When I was twenty-four, I used to think an IPA was a “cool” beer to order because it tasted “complex” and “hoppy” and a little “floral.” Do you actually know what hops taste like? No, you don’t. Sit down, craft-beer guy—I see you, and I’m not talking to you.
IPAs seemed interesting to drink because they are challenging and bitter, like forcing a relationship to work that you know is doomed. Each mouthful is like letting an uncoated painkiller tablet linger a few seconds too long on your tongue: momentarily unpleasant, with the guarantee of relief after you swallow. (“Like bubblegum and grass clippings,” tweeted Austin Gilkeson.) In some sense, this was good because it meant I drank them more slowly, which seemed responsible.
IPAs are on the opposite end of the beer-flavor spectrum from watery beer-pong beer (hey, Natty Light), a fact that is often mistakenly correlated with their superiority. There are even double (“Imperial”) and triple IPAs that are even more stuffed with hops (“hopped”), and with ABV percentages between 7.5 and 10, they will mess you up if you try to drink them like piss-beer. These ones taste even worse—I saw one described on a beer enthusiast site as having a “dank and piney aroma.” I’d rather chew on some pine needles!
But why do we find flavor complexity compelling? What about a “challenge” seems sophisticated? I was a very picky eater as a child. I didn’t eat cream cheese or mustard or mayonnaise or pickles or basically anything weird and sour until I was a legal adult. Don’t get me started on mustard. My sandwiches were lubricated only with butter, and let me tell you, they were good. I often heard the phrase “acquired taste” growing up (usually applied to things like stinky cheeses or pungent anchovies), and assumed that, like puberty, these changes would just suddenly happen to me, and they would be gross, but I would deal with them. I might even like them!
But I never understood why adults drank distilled alcohol. It burned. It smelled. It tasted sharp and wacky and turned. Screwdrivers sound and taste like punishment! Beer, however, I have always loved. I’ve heard tales of me sneaking sips of the stuff as a toddler, from my parents’ green glass bottles—I think I must have loved the fizz, and also participating in a grownup ritual. I don’t know, I was three! But it was good.
One of the theories about aging and tastes is that our tastebuds just fade over time (as does our sense of smell), so our tolerance (and preference) for weird stuff goes way up. But if this were the case with IPA, then it would be the preferred brew of the CBS set (sorry, Les!). But it’s not. And that’s because IPAs are bad. Stop pretending like they’re good because they’re difficult.
I get it. Sometimes it’s fun to jump the queue and show off that you can hang with the big boys. Order a nice tumbler full of peaty scotch. Stuff a six-figure Scoville pepper down your throat and will yourself not to sweat. But at the end of the day, palatal machismo is pretty lame, and a nice easy lager still tastes pretty good.