Iknow the look on the server's face. She is tired. Over it. Sick of people rolling their eyes while she rattles through the list of pedestrian, mass-produced, genuinely shitty beer her establishment is shilling in the middle of a global craft-beer revolution that has rattled the suds market to its chthonian roots. She is not impressed when I interject to ask, "Do you have any IPA?" Even less impressed with the disgust I project when she answers: "Well... Keith's."
By unimpressed, I mean in a here-we-go-again kind of way. Because she knows exactly what I want. She knows I'm looking for a fresh-tasting, citrus-forward, Pacific Northwest-style India Pale Ale whose 60+ IBU (International Bitterness Units) hop-profile is so beautifully, stimulatingly acrid that it will make my uvula stick to my epiglottis, a masochism I happily suffer in pursuit of these aromatic sensations.
My exchange with her is actually a game, a complex pas de deux. I know her look and she knows mine. I am sympathetic because she has to deal with this all shift, every shift; she is sympathetic because she immediately knows the bitter (ha ha) truth: like many others in the region, I am an IPA addict.
That basically means what it conjures: I find IPA's combination of qualities sublime and transcendent, its thirst-quenching ability unmatched by any other style; I crave IPA and go out of my way to find/obtain it. It means I can't drink anything else, and the thought of a skunky-tasting lager or a too-malty ale — either with even a hint of sweetness — fills me with the kind of dread I reserved as a child for the prospect of having to eat liver or parsnips.
Like all addictions, it manufactures socially awkward situations. I've taken to walking out of bars and restaurants that don't have a decent IPA (WTF are they thinking?). What's the point if I'm not going to enjoy myself? When leaving isn't an option — as when I was with a large group in a Fernie eatery where, despite a small craft-beer menu there wasn't a single IPA — I politely decline and order water. Nothing rankles servers more than customers (and potential tips) going from beero-to-zero because they don't like the offerings, but nonetheless remaining to take up valuable seat space.
"Of all beer styles, IPA is the most romanticized, mythologized, and misunderstood. It inspires the fiercest debate, the greatest reverence, and the wildest conjecture in the world of beer," wrote Garret Oliver in The Oxford Companion to Beer. Characterized by high levels of both hops and alcohol, India Pale Ale gained its name from huge popularity in British India and other Empire outposts throughout the 19th century. It kept well on long sea voyages (recognition of hops' preservation quality in beer goes back to the year 1150) and its refreshing character was intact at its destination. After a period of global popularity in the late 19th century, however, IPA suffered sudden and steep decline, languishing as a brewing phantom of the past for most of the 20th century. Then, in the late 1990s, exploding interest in traditional beer styles among North American craft brewers steered IPA back into the light; within a decade it again reached global dominance as the planet's most popular craft beer style — with more diversity in the Northern American IPA market today than existed in the entire continent's beer sector only 20 years ago. Sure craft brewers are creating regional hotbeds and localized styles of beer other than IPA, but really, who gives a rat's ass? This is addiction-think: feed my habit and damn everyone and anything else.
How does one become so monomaniacal? It's like this: once you acquire a taste for decent cheese (or wine, or salami, or olive oil or anything with a singular character), you can no longer suffer the likes of insipid pretenders to the category. With cheese that definitely means Velveeta or American slices, but even run-of-the-mill mass-produced garbage like Monterey Jack and mild cheddar can bring a grimace — they have no taste, no nuance, no discernable raison d'être. Like Coors Light.
Do I sound irrational? They say hops are full of estrogens. My belly and hips are clearly rounding out. And I am surely growing breasts. I have gone from a lean, mean, beer-occasional machine to another waddling hipster washing down reindeer pepperoni and pretzel buns with endless pints of fresh-squeezed IPA (there is, actually, one with just that name). But I don't care. Give me hops, I say, and make them boozy.