One of the stand-by restaurants we frequent as a family, is Red Robin. Our Red Robin, a flagship location, is consistently top-notch for both food and service, and my son is always happy. So am I, for the most part, and I’m pretty picky. Of course, I usually get a beer. Red Robin is one of those chains that try to have at least once “craft” brew on draft.
Given what is called the Craft Beer Revolution, beer has become down-right confusing. When you’re faced with a beer that calls itself “Countryside Ale” or some such, it’s difficult not to scratch your head and say, well, that sounds made up, don’t it?. And it probably is, having nothing whatsoever to do with what’s in the bottle, or can. It’s hard for anyone to understand and keep up with the bewildering varieties on the market, and bartenders are no exception. Of course, if your establishment is making an effort in terms of beer, it behooves you to at least know what the beers taste like, but these days, that’s not always enough, when you deal with beer aficionados. Personally, however, I’d rather a bartender tell me what they think of a beer, in simple terms, than try to bullshit me!
This evening, along with the usual suspects on draft, Sam Adams Boston Lager and Seasonal (Summer Ale), Blue Moon, Guinness, and uhh..Budweiser (I don’t even know), there was a beer called Fat Tire. I asked the waiter, what’s that? She told me that it was an Amber Ale kind of thing. Okay. It sounded familiar but I couldn’t remember. What the heck? I’ll try it! So, she comes back and tells me the bartender told her to tell me it was “very hoppy” and it is an IPA (India Pale Ale). Not being exactly a hipster, certainly not a beer expert, but being more savvy than average, I knew two things: 1) Calling something an IPA doesn’t mean as much, anymore, as most people think and 2) It is quite unlikely that Red Robin would have an actual IPA on draft. It just doesn’t fit their customer base, market..whatever. So, I said, no problem, I’ll have it, even if it is an IPA (i.e. it probably isn’t but I might still like it if it is an IPA because I like many IPA’s).
So, I get a nice somewhat hoppy ale. It’s good. I enjoy it. I don’t think it is an IPA. Doesn’t really seem anywhere close to an IPA, which is fine, because I didn’t think it would be. Still, it isn’t so cut and dry as people think and I don’t have the most discerning palate in the world. I know what I like, though, so I enjoyed the beer enough that I had two of them, and I’ve gone through a few six-packs since and ordered it out a few times as well.
So hey, no harm no foul. Enjoyed our dinner, enjoyed our evening. But when I got home, I got to thinking about why this guy at the bar thought he was serving an IPA. Did he taste it, and being a Coors/Miller/Bud kind of guy, figure, “man, that’s hoppy” or “man, that’s bitter” and figure he’d call it an IPA because IPA’s are supposed to be bitter? I looked it up and find out, it’s from New Belgium Brewing. OH! Okay, I knew it sounded familiar. It’s just what the waiter told me, what they call an Amber Ale. And it was good. It is very weak on hops compared to an IPA, though. Definitely has that good hoppy bitterness, but it was quite balanced. It simply depends on what you compare it too. If the bartender was comparing it to the most beloved beers in America, it’s quite hoppy. If you compare it to many other craft beers or an IPA, it’s not so hoppy. New Belgium’s IPA, on the other hand, is called Ranger.
But what is hoppy, really? There is more bullshit than science in the way the term hoppiness and even bitterness is used.
So, how would we compare the two beers? Well, the you look at the IBU’s or International Bittering Units. This is a measurement of how much hop acids is in the beer. Here’s the thing, IBU, as the name implies, measures bitterness, which is not necessarily the same as “hoppiness” since hops adds other flavors and aromas to beer, along with bitterness, which, taken together, change your perception of the overall flavor. The other thing to consider is that most craft breweries do not really have the expensive equipment needed to measure the IBU. So what do they do, they estimate using equations of some sort, which, I’m told by actual beer aficionados, is about as good as a guesstimate.
The Fat Tire ale is given a 22 on the IBU scale, whereas the Ranger IPA is a 70! So, yeah, that is going to probably taste a lot more bitter and a bit less balanced than the Flat Tire. So, the bartender was not just bullshitting, he was really and truly bullshitting, in terms of his terminology.
But, here’s the thing. Beyond me comparing the two and realizing that, yes, I was right, this beer doesn’t seem like an IPA and I’m not losing my mind, how much does the IBU tell me? Am I supposed to believe that a 70 would be like taking a swallow of Angostura bitters? No.