My children have all loved beer. Not me, not when I was a kid. I thought it sour and nasty. I can tell you the precise moment that changed: I was 21, living on a communal farm in the Appalachian foothills. We only used horses on our farm, but sometimes we would help local farmers put up hay bails in return for some of the hay.
Putting up hay is arduous work; it is hot, the bails are heavy, and bits of hay on your sweaty skin are itchy. And we hadn’t brought water.
So when the womenfolk showed up with a case of Rolling Rock beer I eagerly grabbed one and for the first time appreciated beer. There is really nothing like an ice cold lager, even the skunky sort like Rolling Rock, to quench a thirst.
From then on I liked beer, but I did not drink much of it, and when I did it was the thin American lager type.
My first brush with anything more flavorful was when I started going to bars to listen to Irish folk music and tried Guinness. I liked it immediately, but drank it rarely.
Later I tried other interesting beers, and found I preferred malty brews: stouts and porters, and the hoppier but still malty pale ale.
I really did not like IPAs. “IPA” stands for “India Pale Ale”; it first evolved as a heavily hopped ale for British export to colonial India, the hoppiness enduring the long ship voyage better than maltier brews. I did not care for them, but to be fair my exposure was very limited. I used to buy Saranac and Dundee mixed twelve packs, and they usually included a couple of IPAs. They were always the last to be drunk; I found them thin and bitter.
Now the great thing about these two brands of beer is that for the same price as a relatively tasteless American lager -think Budweiser or Miller- you can drink a pretty flavorful beer. But they are not particularly complex or intense. And I did not like IPAs.
But that changed last summer when I began stopping by the new Wooster Brewery. I at first mostly stuck to the malty stuff: the Red Ale, the Brown Ale, and the New Stout, the one that made Guinness taste like Bud. But some of my coworkers insisted that I try the JAF IPA. “JAF” stands for “Just an effin’ ” IPA, which is a total joke, as this is not “just” an IPA by any means. While American IPAs are much hoppier and flavorful than their British cousins, I had never encountered anything like this: the aroma was rich and flowery, like weed (to which hops are closely related), the flavor complex and multi-leveled. It changed my perception of the style, and I find that I buy little else these days,whether in the brewery or in the store. And I have found some very fine IPAs, not least because of a couple local stores that allow one to make a custom 6 pack from individually priced bottles: Hop Notch, from, of all places, Salt Lake City, Centennial IPA, from Grand Rapids, Old 21, named after the highway just a few blocks away, from Brew Kettle brewery in Strongsville, Ohio, an hour north of here, Sierra Nevada’s aptly named Hoptimus Ale, and many more.
I know, Red Owen will think me hopelessly bourgeois, but it is my one indulgence. And I note that one can spend $5 a day on smokes without losing one’s prole cred.
I had been blind to the glories of the hop; that is only natural . Humans, plain and simple, prefer sweetness. It is not unlike the neophyte wine drinker who is at first put off by dry reds. It can take a bit of aesthetic discipline to find the hidden sweetness in a dry red wine.
And so it is with the humble hop: there is a sweetness deep within the bitter taste, a complexity beneath the intimidating sourness.
Like many things in life that are not immediately apparent it is worth the quest. There is a lesson here: that it is worth the effort and work to find the inner sweetness, the hidden nectar, behind the apparent and forbidding bitterness.
As in beer, so in life.