Turn to hops as the season changes.
There is something about spring that makes me crave bitter beer. The lengthening days just seem to demand a drink with flavors that are bright and brash. The weather -- sometimes stormy, though warming with still a chill -- is not unlike the refreshing, sensory slap of an IPA or pale ale; it may bite just a bit, but it still draws you in. Yes, spring to me is the season for hops.
For brewers the cone-like flower of the hop vine is like spice to malted barley's meat and potatoes. Different varieties bring an assortment of flavors such as citrus, pine, flowers, herbs and fresh-cut grass. Hops also supply the brisk bitterness that makes hoppy beers so refreshing.
American-style pale ales are the true showcase for hops. The meager malt serves only to keep the hops from being lonely. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is considered the originator of the style. In my view it is still among the best. It's sharp and dry, with bitterness that barks but doesn't quite bite. The pithy grapefruit flavors of American Cascade hops ride over the top and carry it to a refreshing finish.
Crosscut Pale Ale from Lift Bridge in Stillwater takes that citrus character a step further with the addition of actual grapefruit peel. The zest doesn't stand out; it serves more as a hop flavor booster. This beer's bitter bite is balanced by light toffee malt. It's a nice beer to savor on the porch.
India Pale Ale is a step up the ladder in hoppiness and alcoholic strength. Malt plays a bigger role, but hops still steal the show. Steel Toe Brewing's Size 7 IPA is one of the best locally brewed examples. It's a bitter beer, but the focus really is on hop flavor. It practically drips with juicy citrus and tropical fruit. Lightly biscuity malt provides a near-balancing bed.
If you want an IPA with a brutally bitter edge, the locally brewed Northwest Passage from Flat Earth Brewing will definitely satisfy that craving. The brewery calls this "the hoppiest IPA in the Midwest." It is unapologetically unbalanced. Hops are not just the star of this show; they are practically the only actor.
India Pale Ale originated in Britain and the English version is still my favorite. While still hop-centric, it offers more malty balance than its American offspring. One of the best is Meantime IPA. It has a solid base of biscuity, toffee malt. Grassy hop flavors overlaid with orange marmalade and apricot notes make this one a true delight.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at michael@ aperfectpint.net.
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