I heard something interesting the other day on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!: people are incapable of identifying more than four flavor components at a time. Apparently, the show’s writers had read an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Wine Ratings are Flawed,” which cites a 1996 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology “show[ing] that even flavor-trained professionals cannot reliably identify more than three or four components in a mixture, although wine critics regularly report tasting six or more.” If only Roald Dahl were still here to lampoon those fatuous oenophiles! (Must listen.) As it is, I’ll settle for Peter Sagal, the funny host of Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!: “What you have long suspected is true: those wine critics who go on and on about the fruity bouquets and a glass of chardonnay with notes of copper, plum, and wet dog—it’s all bull! They’re making it up!…This explains why one highly rated Burgundy was listed as having, ‘nut and fruit aromas with notes of oak, raspberry, clay, and oh my God, I can’t pretend anymore, it tastes, I don’t know, red, okay—it tastes like red wine!’”
Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! airs on Saturdays at 4:00p.m. on our local NPR station. You can just see the dinner party crowd sniggering on their way to the liquor store, where they then traded their hard-earned dollars for rating points awarded by Wine Spectator. Not that I’m any more consistent myself, of course. I always enjoy hearing that people know less than they claim and, because I don’t even pretend to know as much about wine as anyone with a fresh memory of Sideways, I’m also always grateful to know that somebody who sniffs thoughtfully and chews a bit before swallowing thinks highly of my purchase. Seriously, no matter how flawed those ratings may be, it’s nice to have something to go by other than the price tag.
But how flawed are the ratings? Or rather, what we really want to know, just how full of shit are these so-called experts? In my groundless opinion (really, the facts are in the WSJ article—I’m just talking here): a little full of shit. The reason I feel qualified to serve up that precise verdict is that I’ve recently been finding myself on the other side of our silly little socio-taste equation, i.e., with the experts—except not about wine, but beer. Robin and I have fallen hard for a type of craft beer: the double, or imperial, India Pale Ale (aka DIPA or IIPA). These are extreme beers, with more hops (flowery bitterness), malt (sweetness), and alcohol than standard IPAs, which are themselves very flavorful. People with a taste for double IPAs are known in some quarters as hop heads, because other beers no longer do it for us—we crave that intense bitterness.
As hop heads, Robin and I spend a fair amount of time describing our beers, and although I don’t think we’ve ever come up with six or seven flavors for a single mouthful, we’ve certainly deployed our fair share of pretentious modifiers that could never be reproduced by another beer enthusiast or even, on another day, ourselves. However, we don’t think of that as a problem, because when I tell Robin that I’m detecting some blueberry and caramel, I don’t mean it literally (really, I don’t think anyone is capable of isolating two flavors as distinctive as blueberry and caramel in a beer—there’s just too much going on in your mouth); I’m speaking in shorthand, saying that this beer we’re drinking is sort of like a combination of the beer we had a few weeks ago whose hops reminded us immediately of blueberries and another beer so malty it tasted like caramel. Yes, that is vague and unscientific. But why should we care? We’re just having fun trying to describe a sensation we enjoy.
The thing is, though, something funny has started happening since I acquired even this little bit of knowledge and passion about beer: people have started listening to me. And because that doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like to think, I never handle it well. I pontificate, I let my shorthand sound more objective and esoteric than it is. Does that mean the other customers in the beer room of our local liquor store are somehow foolish for taking my advice? Of course not. I do know enough about double IPAs to guide people toward what they want, whether that’s an ultra-bitter hop-bomb or something more balanced with malt. But neither would these customers be wrong for going home, opening the beer I helped them choose, and—even as they enjoy it—saying, “Blueberries? That guy was full of shit.”
Which is not something I want Robin’s readers saying about me. So here, without further adieu or aureate adjectives, are tasting notes on three of my favorite double IPAs:
1) Double Dog Double Pale Ale by Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland: This is the beer I find myself wanting to drink the most often. It’s bitter enough to provide my hop fix, but also has enough malt to tint it orange. I hesitate to use the word “balanced,” because double IPAs aren’t really about balance: sometimes you want pure hops, sometimes you want malty sweetness. The Double Dog has the amount of each I most often crave, but that’s just my taste. Plus, at 11.5% alcohol content, it makes me as warm as wine does. I’ve seen people online complain about high alcohol content in beer; I just don’t get that.
2) Green Flash Imperial India Pale Ale by Green Flash Brewing Co. in California: Unless I’m in the mood for something even more ridiculous (about which there will be future posts), this is my hop-bomb of choice. Flowery, bitter, delicious, it’s a also a little thicker and less carbonated than other double IPAs in this style. Which for me is a big plus.
3) Double Simcoe IPA by Weyerbacher Brewing Co. in Pennsylvania: Simcoe is a type of hop. Most double IPAs (and I think most beers in general) use a combination of hops, but this beer is all Simcoe. I think I read somewhere that Simcoe is a particularly strong and bitter hop, but I can’t be sure; I just know that this beer definitely has a distinctive flavor. It starts out a little malty for me but then finishes with an intense bitterness that, again, tastes somehow different — and I love it. (One thing I should note: “a little malty for me” really isn’t all that malty; I like my beers bitter, my wines dry, and my whiskeys peaty. Beer lovers rave about Hercules Double IPA by Great Divide Brewing Company in California, but it’s just too sweet for me.)