The Bitter the Better

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The stimulating and invigorating properties of a bitter beer stem almost completely from the hops… even the noble and very spoiled ladies get used to this taste quite easily and after that, every beer that doesn’t have this taste seems tasteless and unpleasant to them.
  — Das Brockhaus Konversations-Lexikon; Berlin, 1898

There are scores of beer drinkers prowling town these days who’d get along quite well with those “very spoiled ladies” of 19th century Germany. Mike Engel would be one of them. Engel is a beer aficionado, a homebrewer, and a self-professed hop head. He’s also a devotee of India Pale Ale, the lavishly bitter beer that has become the defining style of American craft brewing.

“The IPA is definitely my go-to style of beer and has been for a very long time,” says Engel. “I am a very dedicated IPA drinker, the hoppier the better! I always look for IPAs, either when shopping or at the bar.”

Engel’s sentiments are being echoed more and more frequently in Oshkosh. Bitter beer has become king here. As recently as two years ago, you couldn’t have said that about Oshkosh.

Kevin Bowen is the brewmaster at Fox River Brewing Company in Oshkosh and Appleton. When I interviewed him in 2013, he was just beginning to notice the broadening acceptance of IPA here. “It is breaking a bit,” Bowen said. “Appleton had a little more of a hop-forward beer following than they did in Oshkosh, but that’s changing.”

What happened earlier this week on the retail side at Gardina’s reflects that change. Monday, Adam Carlson at Gardina’s sent out an alert via Facebook that the store had just taken delivery of a new shipment of beer from Toppling Goliath, a small Iowa brewery best known for its hop-centric Pale Ales and IPAs. Part of that delivery included eight cases of 22-ounce bottles of Toppling Goliath’s Sosus Double IPA. Oshkosh hop heads responded. Within three days, Gardina’s had sold all but a case of it.

What’s occurring locally is part of a much larger trend. Nationwide, sales of IPA and Pale Ale, the two dominant styles of bitter, have surged dramatically. Together they now account for a full 30% of all craft beer sales in bars and restaurants. In terms of popularity, no other style of craft beer comes close.

And this doesn’t take into account offshoot styles of bitter beer. If it did, that 30% would probably be inflated to something closer to 50%. Everything from Belgian-style Farmhouse Ales to German-style Bocks now receive the American treatment. Hop flavor and bitterness have become the defining characters of the craft beer we drink the most of. Don’t look for that to change anytime soon.

Once acquired, a thirst for hop-forward beers tends to captivate the palate. For some drinkers, it means that most any beer found lacking a rousing whop of bitterness is a beer found wanting. Mike Engel sums it up neatly. “Although I do like a good imperial or oatmeal stout or a good German wheat,” he says, “I can’t get enough of the IPA’s.” For beer drinkers in Oshkosh today, that’s a craving conveniently indulged.

Beer of the Week
It’s gotta be an IPA, right? Here’s one for the ages.

Peter Ballantine was a Scottish immigrant who came to America in 1830 and launched a brewery. His IPA became famous. It was one of the few American IPAs to survive Prohibition and was a major influence on the first wave of American craft brewers. The Ballantine brand was acquired by Pabst in 1975 and when Pabst closed its Milwaukee brewery in 1996, production of Ballantine IPA ceased. Until last year.

Pabst has revived the beer using a recipe inspired by the post-Prohibition version of Ballantine IPA. It’s a fantastic brew. Amber hued, under a thick, tacky foam, the beer gives off a shout of resinous hop aroma. The beer is full-bodied and malt rich with a very decisive bitterness that leaves a long bracing finish. I had a pint of Ballantine IPA at O’Marro’s Public House last weekend where it’s being served on draft. This IPA is a classic.

Short Pours
Start looking for 6-packs of Fox River Brewing Company beers to show up on store shelves here in town. It’s the first time since the late 1990s that the Oshkosh brewery has distributed it’s beer locally in 6-packs. More on that here.

If you’re on Facebook, check out the Dublin’s Irish Pub page. The pub has stepped up its social media presence and is sending out regular updates on what they’re pouring. It’s a good way to keep tabs on the incredible selection of beer that cycles through Dublin’s.

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About Author

Lee Reiherzer

Proponent of bitter German pilsener, homebrewer, beer history nerd, gardener of hops. Types compulsively about beer in Oshkosh at OshkoshBeer.blogspot.com.

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