Reflections: Is a bitter beer better?

Is a bitter beer better?
By William L. Bulla

I am not a beer drinker, but recently I became intrigued with a sign in front of Always Ron's Restaurant stating that 24 Craft Beers were on tap inside.
The question in my mind was "What is a craft beer?" So I went inside and asked bartender Sean Abeyta. I was very impressed with his knowledge but he began using terms that I didn't understand "ABV", "IPA', "IBU", "microbrewery", "brewpub" and others. So after my visit with him, I decided to look further into the topic.
A "microbrewery" is a brewery that produces a limited amount of beer. In the U.S., the maximum limit is 15,000 US beer barrels. A "craft brewery" is a small, independent and traditional brewery that is allowed to produce up to 6 million US beer barrels annually. A "brewpub" brews and sells beer on the premises. A brewpub may also be known as a microbrewery if production has a significant distribution beyond the premises. The American Brewers Association use a fixed 75% of production to determine if a company is a microbrewery.
It seems like everyone today has heard of ales and lagers, styles of beer that are becoming more popular lately due to a recent surge in craft beers and microbreweries. Sales of craft beer, made primarily by small, independent breweries, is the fastest-growing segment of the beer industry. In 2010, volume increased by 11 percent, according to the Brewers Association that is made up of more than 20,000 brewers, distributors and wholesalers.
Ale is one of the two major styles of beer, the other being lager. Ale, the oldest form of beer, is typically fruitier and more full-bodied than lager. There are many different types of ale: Pale ale, Dark ale, Brown ale, Irish red, Belgian, German, Scotch, Old ale, Cream ale.
Another common type of beer that is frequently micro brewed is called an IPA, or an "India Pale Ale". These beers are packed with flavor because they use an extensive amount of hops when brewing their beer. But what many do not know is that this variety of beer came out of necessity and invention.
Once Britain had colonized India in the late 1770's, colonists began to pine for the rich ales of the motherland. Unfortunately, sea transportation, at a time before refrigeration or pasteurization, left the imported beer vile and flat. British colonists were without their precious beer and something had to be done!
Brewers experimented with ways to decrease the beer's chances of spoiling on the journey. Since refrigeration and pasteurization were not invented yet, their only weapons in the fight were the ingredients, specifically hops and alcohol, used in the brewing process. High amounts of hops lead to greater fermentation that increases the alcohol content of a beer. Most IPAs are slightly higher in alcohol than their regular counterparts. Alcohol makes an environment that is hostile to bacteria that causes the beer to sour. A brewer took a normal pale ale recipe and added a lot more hops to it, which raised the alcohol content. So, by adding more hops than normal, they were able to keep the microbes at bay long enough to reach India. They named it "India Pale Ale" because it was made specifically for voyages to India.
To understand the characteristics of an IPA, you should first understand the basic ingredients of beer and their role. All beers consist of 4 basic ingredients, water, yeast, grain (usually barley), and hops. The grain contains the natural sugars that enable fermentation, and provide the beer with flavor, color, body and texture. Hops prevent bacteria from spoiling the beer and provide a spicy, bitter flavor. The varieties of these ingredients and the proportional mixes of each are what give each beer its unique character. The two measures of these in the brewing world are " IBU's" (International Bitterness Units), and "ABV%" (Alcohol by Volume), something you will see in many beer reviews.
American pale ales are light to medium amber in color, with light malt flavor and significant hop flavor and aroma, usually from American hop varieties. Pale ales generally have low to moderate alcohol content, 4.5-6% ABV. India Pale Ales (IPAs) are assertively bitter, with prominent hop flavor and aroma. The color can be anywhere from light amber to dark copper, and malt character varies similarly. The emphasis is definitely on the hops here. Alcohol content is usually moderate to high, 5.5-7.5% ABV. Imperial IPAs are like regular IPAs, but more. They're higher in alcohol content (7.5-10.5% ABV), maltier, hoppier, and darker.
When trying an IPA, be prepared for flavor! It is often bitter with complex flavors. It is an acquired taste many may not like. However, a great number of people seem to think a bitter beer is better!

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.