In the Northwest, ales can cure us
Like most teenagers, I began by drinking light lagers, usually the brands that sponsored my favorite baseball teams. In college I discovered the more robust ales and lagers of Canada, then porters, stouts and malt liquors with heartier taste and more wallop.
Europe seasoned me further, as I immersed myself in British ales with body and color, German lagers with crispness and bite. By the time I returned to the U.S., I had left bland beer behind.
The timing was good. American microbreweries took off, unveiling more beers than anyone could possibly keep up with. I played the field, dabbling with many, sticking with few. Eventually I landed in Seattle, only to find Northwest beers that called themselves bitters or pale ales, but tasted kind of mousy.
Fortunately, many Northwest brewers had resurrected another brewing style of the British colonial period. India pale ale was created to withstand long voyages through changing weather conditions to faraway colonies. With no refrigeration, brewers increased the alcoholic content and hops in their recipes for pale ales (paler than brown ales, that is) to ward off souring from lengthy storage. The resulting beer was strong, crisp, effervescent, aromatic and, most of all, bitter. In the colonial heat, India pale ale was particularly refreshing. In modern meals, it can stand up to the boldest foods, the perfect complement for barbecue, smoked salmon, Indian, Thai and other pungent dishes.
Several factors (including yeast type, boiling temperature and minerals in the water) affect the bitterness of beer, but the type and concentration of hops is the most important. When boiled, natural acids in the hops are converted into more soluble iso-alpha acids that flavor the brew. Bitterness is rated in International Bittering Units (IBUs). Brewing texts usually call for 40 to 60 IBUs in an India pale ale; American lager measures around 15. Once a certain bitterness is attained, however, these numbers make as much sense to me as the NBA salary cap. If an IPA doesn't make your tongue tingle and cheeks pucker, it's not bitter enough.
Among the Northwest versions, colors vary from copper to amber, red and gold; some are filtered (clear), some unfiltered (cloudy). Most fulfill the traditional characteristics of the colonial style: strong hop bitterness, pronounced aroma and high alcoholic content. Since IPA is too strong for most American beer drinkers, not every saloon pours an IPA, nor does every microbrewery make one.
In my quest to sample as many Northwest IPAs as possible, I came across several excellent ones available only from their breweries or in bars (Snoqualmie Falls Wildcat IPA and Lunar IPA being personal favorites). But enough local IPAs are being bottled for retail to satisfy the needs of even a bitter man like me.
Yakima Brewing Company's Grant's IPA, brewed since 1984, is considered a pioneer among American IPAs, along with Anchor Steam's Liberty Ale. Both seek to strictly re-create the 19th-century British style, which makes them fairly tame by current bittering standards. Grant's medium-bodied, golden ale uses several varieties of Yakima-grown hops, some for bittering and others for a crisp, aromatic finish. Pike Brewing Company's copper-colored IPA is more assertively hopped than Grant's, balanced with maltiness from gently roasted barley.
Pyramid IPA has a kick as hard as the elephant in the ancient Indo-Persian scene on its label. La Conner IPA and Hale's Mongoose IPA are both dry-hopped, which means hops are added again during the final conditioning to add fragrance. Both boast a floral bouquet, balanced bitterness and a pleasant, lingering aftertaste.
Olympia's Fish Brewing makes three IPAs. Its certified organic Fish Tale IPA is a medium-bodied brew with a bright golden color and complex flavor from several different types of hops. In its Leavenworth line, the brewery also makes Hodgson's IPA (available only in taverns), an unfiltered ale it rates at 70 IBUs. Seasonally it offers Winterfish, which it considers an "extreme" IPA, also rated at 70 IBUs.
Making this so-called extreme (also called double, imperial or industrial) IPA is the current rage among West Coast brewers. The aim is to pump up the bitterness and alcoholic content as much as possible, resulting in a thicker, full-bodied, high-alcohol (frequently 7 percent or more) beer. Rogue's Imperial India Pale Ale (or "I Squared PA") is almost like a nectar, perhaps crossing the line between beer and medicine. It would be hard to drink a lot of it.
Three other local breweries put a more traditional take on the IPA style but make it decidedly hoppier than contemporary British breweries turn out. Maritime Pacific Brewing's Imperial Pale Ale is hoppy, crisp and citrusy, with an underlying malt character. Bear Creek Brewing, which runs Redmond's Northwest Brewhouse, markets Jack's India Pale Ale, which has a hop bitterness that starts out mild with a malty taste but builds to a robust finish. Elysian Brewing's "The Immortal I.P.A." has more than earned its name, and is now available beyond Capitol Hill both in other bars and in 22-ounce bottles in supermarkets.
My favorite Northwest IPA comes from Portland's Bridgeport Brewing. Deep golden in color, it has an assertive and fragrant hop character derived from two full pounds of Northwest-grown hops in every barrel. Aged three times longer than most beers, it is double-fermented, resulting in smooth layers of taste.
Will Bridgeport be the end of my journey? Perhaps. More likely, however, this quest will go on forever. Even now, more beers beckon from brewpubs in Mount Vernon, Bellingham, Victoria and beyond.
So I must stumble on alone, glass in hand, a bitter, bitter man.
Mike Greenstein is a Seattle free-lance writer and editor of the Washington State Visitors' Guide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.