The Northwest is America's capital of hoppy beer.
The grunge trend may have died out 20 years ago, but Seattleites still wear a lot of flannel—just not as a fashion statement. The rest of the country copied us, but Seattleites wear flannel because it’s a temperature-appropriate layer that shields the wearer from the ubiquitous mist that hangs in the Northwest air from mid-October until June.
Similarly, while the rest of the country drinks India pale ale because it’s the hottest thing in craft-brewing (and, of course, because it’s delicious), Seattleites drink it like it’s flowing from a fountain in a desert for more practical reasons.
“Our affinity for IPA is really an affinity for hops,” explains Kendall Jones of the Washington Beer Blog. And the Yakima Valley, only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from downtown Seattle, grows 77 percent of the country’s annual hops crop. Hops play a part in many types of beer, but they control flavor most dramatically in an IPA. Brewers use hops in beers for various reasons, such as stability, bitterness, or flavor—and they’re added at various times, which effects how much you can taste them. The style called “West-coast IPA” is known for being over-hopped and aromatic, but there’s a less-well-defined sub-category, the Northwest IPA. Juicy, piney, maybe a bit better balanced, it’s the love of Seattle beer drinkers, especially the local breed known as “hop-heads.”
The type of hops matters, but freshness matters more. Mediocre fresh IPA is still better than good IPA that’s old, says Joshua M. Bernstein, author of Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Beer. In Seattle, where the breweries are likely less than a few miles from where you’re drinking the beer and IPA kegs kick as quickly as you can order another round, you’re rarely drinking anything but beer that’s both fresh and really great.
Come fall, when the hop harvest is ready for picking, local breweries fight to be the first and the best to market with fresh-hop beers, brewed within 24 hours from when the hops are picked. “It’s a matter of access,” says Bernstein, and nowhere is better poised for that access than Washington’s 352 breweries. Writing in The Seattle Times, the local beverage writer Tan Vinh summed up Washington IPAs, saying, “We do it better than anyone. And fresh-hop beer—also called wet-hop—is one of the distinctive brews unique to our region.” Without the hefty cost of overnight shipping, and with a little extra time before the fresh hops decompose, Seattle’s breweries make this specialty cheaper and better than anywhere else. The advantage of the bright, clean-tasting brew is often described as similar to the difference between cooking with fresh herbs versus dried ones.
But hops are only half the equation: Seattle’s heart for small businesses is the other. IPAs are the darling of the craft brew industry, and craft beer, by nature, is a small business. Perhaps it’s the independent spirit of the “Wild West” roots, or a self-preservation tactic for those in our own tiny, upper-left corner of the country, but Seattleites fiercely support local and small businesses. Entrepreneur, CNBC, and Forbes, among others, list Seattle as the best place to start a business. And no small businesses are more fun to support than Seattle’s breweries.
Seattle’s breweries make the best IPAs in the country. Take Redhook—which opened in 1981 and has been brewing its local best-selling IPA since 1997—and Georgetown, which just won the Great American Beer Festival’s gold medal for best American-style IPA. At the heart of why Seattleites love their IPA, there’s nothing about it being cool or fashionable: it just tastes good. Seattle drinks IPA for the same reason locals don flannel 300 days a year (the other 65, it’s fleece): it’s easy and comfortable. That the rest of the country thinks it’s cool? That’s just an added bonus.
Did we miss your favorite Seattle IPA maker? Tell us in the comments.