In the craft beer game, there's no room for snobbery.
You wanna call yourself a beer drinker these days, you'd better make room for anything and everything: blueberry lagers, tangerine wheats, chocolate stouts, even the odd barleywine. But three little words strike terror into my heart.
India. Pale. Ale.
It's not that I can't appreciate IPAs — in fact, it's pretty much required reading at any beer store or bar these days. But I'm a knife-and-fork-beer kind of guy. I like dunkels and doppelbocks, stouts, porters, brown and strong ales and, in the summer, the odd wheat. In Florida, those preferences make for heavy drinking in the long summer months and, given the beer industry's hoppy proclivities, leave you in the lurch at many a barbecue.
I don't think IPAs are bad, of course; I just don't like them, much in the same way I prefer a single-malt Scotch or a flavorful gin to an oversweet port or sherry. And despite once telling a friend who brought Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA to a party to "get that damn Pine-Sol away from me," I decided it was time to find a tolerable option. I was officially ISO an IPA.
Not being an expert, I turned to the advice of experts. Surely some of Tampa Bay's best beer bars could point me in the direction of an IPA that wouldn't turn my tongue inside out.
First up was Willard's Tap House, tucked away in an isolated strip mall in Largo. Bartender Mark Fehrenbach, made well-aware of my own limitations, pointed out several options on the bar's 40-tap chalkboard, conveniently color-coded by type.
For $8, I chewed my way through a paddle of Brooklyn Blast! (memorable mostly for the 9 percent alcohol by volume), Gulfport's Cycle Brewing Fixie (light and citrusy, but with a strong aftertaste), Lexington's Kentucky IPA (oddly flat-tasting, and unable to compete in this group) and Ballast Point's Sculpin, which smelled and tasted like a glass full of Christmas trees. Fehrenbach also offered a sample of Two Brothers Laughing Panda Green Tea IPA, which was agreeable, but sweeter than I think a beer should be. Good thing Willard's sold bags of Santita's tortilla chips and jars of Publix queso for another $8.
Another mecca of revolving kegs is The Ale and the Witch in downtown St. Pete. There, tapminder Tim Evans sold me a flight of four for $6, focusing on the bar's abundant local brews.
Cycle Brewing's Motueka was nice and smooth, but with a lip-curling bitterness. The 7venth Sun Intergalactic was bright and fruity, almost pearlike, soon to be knocked down by the Last Stop by Tampa Bay Brew Bus. The Bus brewed this one with six different hops at Cigar City's facilities in Tampa, Evans said, and the freshness stood out — the entire glass had the prerequisite resin taste, but with an almost grassy undertone, "like they just pinched the hops." Piney, but refreshing. The Avery IPA was a great example of an IPA, which was not good for me, but a Coronado Islander IPA went down fairly smooth after that first hoppy blast, thanks to the maltiness the California brewery adds to try to balance it out. Alas, it wasn't enough. I was closer, but not there yet.
With still no shortage of options, I stopped in at World of Beer, thinking if any bar could offer further guidance, it would be this chain. Unfortunately for my liver, there's a WOB next door to the tbt* newsroom in St. Pete. The coolers full of bottles stretched to Winter Park, but the taps deserved first try.
The Sweetwater Extra Pale Ale lived up to its name to a fault, bringing to mind crushed SweetTarts. The Victory HopDevil Ale Nitro was heavily hopped, but had copious malts to back it up. Bartender Lisa Mecurio tried a few other options that were close to IPAs, like a Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye, then handed over a Bell's Two Hearted Ale from Michigan, which she described as "more of a traditional pale ale." Light with some citrus, there was a hint of hops, but not too much. It was (dare I say it?) tolerable, especially for warmer weather.
Then Mecurio's coworker Camerin Collins arrived and heard my plight. Being a porter and stout drinker herself, she thought about it for a moment.
"I just can't do IPAs," Collins said. "It's just instant cottonmouth. It blows out my taste buds for the rest of the night."
Here's someone whose opinion I could trust.
She and Mecurio suggested something different than the American-style IPAs I'd been sampling, perhaps with European hops, or maybe an Imperial IPA. Then Collins suggested Terrapin Hopsecutioner, from Athens, Ga.
Only available in the bottle, I took another leap of faith, paid $4 and tried a sip. A tinge of hops. A blast of malt. Darker than usual, but clearly labeled India Pale Ale. It was a tad heavier, but smooth and complex. When I was finished with it, the ultimate question finally was answered: Would I buy another one of these?
Yes, yes I would. I would even drink it if I wasn't being dared to. That's the surest of success.
Now, if only someone would bring it to a Labor Day barbecue.
— Want to suggest a good IPA for Josh? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us at @tbtnewspaper with the hashtag #tampabaydrinks.