Who’s Afraid of IPA’s?

Kevin Brooks is a cheesemonger and self-proclaimed beer geek. This Saturday he’ll be leading a seminar at the Craft Beer Festival in NYC. The beers in this post are all available at Murray’s on Bleecker Street.

IPAs are intimidating.

It’s true. Big, strong and intensely bitter, IPAs are the beer that lets hops shine. Stinking of citrus and pine, they explode on the palate and, if you’re not used to it, they can really scare you off. I remember once in my callow youth when I left most of a pint of Sierra Nevada sitting on the bar, possibly thinking, “that was gross, it probably went bad.” Oh foolish past me!

The granddaddy of IPAs was developed in Burton on Trent in the 1800s. At the time, the British were having difficulties delivering beer to colonies in India.  A long hot sea voyage wasn’t good for the beer, and it was arriving spoiled and useless. Knowing of hops’ preservative qualities and that a stronger beer would be better suited to the trip, brew masters upped the amount of hops they added to the beer, resulting in a strongly bitter brew. It was pale ale destined for India, so they called it India Pale Ale, or an IPA. The name stuck.

There is a massive range of flavors and aromas in the world of hops, and brewers continue to find new ways to unlock ever more bitter and intense brews. Dry-hopping, wet-hopping, hop backs, double hopping, continuous hopping, bar-side hop infusers, all working to wrest more flavor and aroma out of this humble flower. Some hops are added for bitterness, some for flavor, some for aroma, and different kinds of hops are added at different parts of the boil. It’s all very involved.

To ease into the world of hops, I’ve selected three beers that raise us up through levels of intensity. So starting off we have an English IPA, Coniston Brewery’s Bluebird Bitter. English IPAs are milder than their American cousins; they’re hopped less, and English hops are milder, more floral, and less assertive than American hops. They also have cute names like Fuggle. Bluebird stands as a very drinkable, well balanced ale with a sweet backbone, lovely floral aromas, and light bitterness. I like this one paired with a mellow English cheddar with a similarly silly name, Tickler Cheddar!

Next up was an emblematic American IPA, Green Flash’s West Coast IPA. American hops tend to be more towards the piney and citric side of things, and American brewers tend to throw a whole lot more of them into the kettle, making for much bigger, more hop forward beers. The West Coast IPA smells like fresh cut grapefruits in the middle of a pine forest, while the flavor is big and citrusy, but still balanced, with a lingering bitterness to let you know what you are drinking. It’s also a touch stronger, at 7.2% abv, so be warned. For cheese picks, this is amazing with the hops-coated Cavemaster Reserve Hudson Flower.

And now for the bitterest of the bitter, an Imperial IPA. Imperial is a bit of a buzzword in brewing these days, and generally just means “more”, as in “more hops, more booze, more flavor.” Southern Tier’s Unearthly Imperial IPA is no joke, and one of my favorites. Enormously bitter, but with a big malt backbone supporting it, making for an eye-watering, yet still drinkable beer. But Murray’s doesn’t have the standard Unearthly; we carry the Oak Aged Unearthly, which has spent the better part of a year chilling in an oak barrel.

What a difference a year (trapped in a barrel) makes! As beer ages, hop flavor and aroma is the first thing to fade. First the aromas fade to nothing, then the flavors dwindle, leaving behind just the characteristic bitterness. The Oak Aged Unearthly has mellowed out considerably. No piney, no citrus, just a big chewy bitterness that isn’t overwhelming. And when you take a big, balanced IPA and remove the hop character, you’re left with a big, sweet, malty beer. The level of caramelly sweetness is really surprising, and so is how well it pairs with some Mast Bros. Sea Salt chocolate. Who would have thought you could drink an IPA with dessert?

Are IPAs intimidating? Sure. But as with anything else, if you give it half a chance, you’ll find some real pleasant surprises in there.

We’ll Drink To That: Beer & Cheese Pairing Basics

Caitlin and Kevin have insatiable appetites for delicious cheese/beverage combinations and they are out to try them all. Today they share some basic tips for pairing beer and cheese, just in time for your St. Paddy’s Day festivities.

BEER ME

Beer and cheese. The perfect pairing? Potentially. Better than wine and cheese? Undeniably, and we aren’t just saying so because St. Patrick’s Day is on the horizon. A wise man once told us that cheese and beer are the same: both are made from grass processed by animals for our (delicious) consumption, and both are ancient methods of preservation. If you’re unconvinced, try this mental exercise: Think of your favorite cheese, and the creamy rich texture that coats your mouth. Then imagine a glass of crisp, lightly effervescent,  golden-brown lager. There, now you get it.

BEST BETS: TIPS FOR CHOOSING BEER AND CHEESE 

When pairing cheese and beer, it’s important to stay away from super hoppy beers. You may love that eye-watering Double IPA, but it’ll overwhelm any cheese you want to munch with it. Stay closer to the malty side of the fence: Stouts, bocks, ambers and pilsners. Stouts and porters are particularly cooperative, as their roasty-toasty character works well with many cheeses.

On the cheese side, go for cheese that will stand up to your beer. Delicate cheeses are easily overwhelmed, so you wouldn’t pair these with anything too intense. Texture-forward cheeses, such as Fromager d’Affinois or a triple crème can get lost against even the mildest of beers. Instead, think alpine-style, washed-rinds, and thistle rennet options – in other words, stuff with serious flavor.

WHAT WE LOVED

Alpine cheese, such as Comte or Gruyere (cave-aged for sure), pairs well with a rich Stout. The roasted character of the stout, which can frequently have notes of chocolate or coffee, marries perfectly with the sweet, caramelly, cooked milk of an alpine cheese. This weekend we tried a few new beer and cheese combos. Our favorite pairing was Spring Brook Tarentaise with Two Brothers North-Wind Imperial Stout, the fruity American alpine mixed delightfully with the clean notes of the Stout. And for a truly seasonal treat, you can’t do much better than our new, limited edition Cavemaster Reserve Across the Pond. It’s washed in stout, so beer is its natural companion – get it while it lasts!

The best thing about beer is that it’s a wonderfully forgiving accompaniment, so DO try this at home. As long as you take care to match flavor intensity odds are you’ll have a delicious duo. Throw some cured meats, olives, nuts or dried fruit alongside, and dinner is served.

Caitlin Griffith is a cheesemonger at our Bleecker Street store, and in a few months she’ll boast a MA in Food Studies from NYU. Things she enjoys in excess: wine, radishes, list-making, garlic, and salt water.

Kevin Brooks is head monger at Bleecker Street and also shares his merchandising expertise in Murray’s Kroger outposts. His iPod is full of metal, and his brain is full of thoughts on beer, burritos, and Settlers of Catan.