Our ongoing series on the essential beers that anyone who’s interested in craft beer ought to know.
STONE IPA—the O.G. IPA, my first real (beer) love… This is the one that kicked it all off for me— my first “real” IPA, and quite possibly yours too—and my obsession with craft beer. And by real, I mean the sticky, intensely hopped, West Coast-style IPA that has become the standard for all IPAs brewed since. I know Stone Brewing didn’t invent the West Coast IPA. That honor belongs to Anchor Steam’s Liberty Ale, perhaps, or maybe Lagunitas’ IPA or Pizza Port’s Swami… or could it have been Vinnie Cilurzo’s IPA at the Blind Pig Brewery in Temecula, CA (you know, the brewery before he started a little outfit called Russian River Brewing Company)? Maybe Stone just did the marketing better, or came along at the right time in history, but in my mind Stone IPA has become synonymous with the style. The notes on the bottle even proclaim boldly: “The IPA That Launched Generations of Hop Fanatics!”
I remember the first time I came into actual contact with a Stone IPA. It was Super Bowl Sunday many years ago, and my friend had an ice chest filled with them. I just stopped by to say hi and was ready to move on until I looked into the chest. I had heard of Stone IPA, but it still wasn’t as widely available (yes, millennial craft beer fans—there was a time when BevMo was non-existent, when liquor stores weren’t craft beer marts, and when supermarkets only carried fizzy lagers, some German beers and maybe the occasional Foster’s. IPAs did not dominate shelf space the way it does today… yay, finding great craft beers was an actual adventure…). I wasn’t even staying for the game, but dammit, I was going to crack open a bottle before I walked back out the door. And that first sip? Magical. It blew my mind how hoppy it was, so much more tasty than I had imagined it to be. Such a damn good beer!
Since then, I’ve had so many IPAs, oh so many… Like your first love, you base all of your subsequent interactions on that first relationship, and every IPA I’ve tasted since has been compared to that first Stone IPA. Would this one be as good as Stone? As hoppy? Balanced? Is she crazy or is it just me? Marriage material…? Stone IPAs were a “go-to” beer in case a bar had a mediocre row of taps; for the longest time, it was the best available beer in my fridge. A lot of time has passed. I’ve moved on.
As I approached writing this review in context of this beer being a “Craft Beer Essential,” the questions swirled in me: Had I moved on too quickly? Had I betrayed my roots? Had I forgotten my first love? This is me returning to my roots, seeking out that which hooked me in the first place. Would it be as good under my evolved critical eye and palate?
What was it about the Stone IPA that excited me so? Let’s first briefly explore its history. Stone Brewing had its humble beginnings in San Diego County, opening up its doors in 1996. The original brewery actually began operations in the San Marcos location currently home to the wonderful Port Brewing/Lost Abbey operation. Stone Brewing’s flagship beer was the Stone Pale Ale, followed by the famous Arrogant Bastard. The Stone IPA was their third release, debuting on August 16, 1997. While not the first “West Coast” IPA brewed, it certainly became one of the best-known. Stone’s beers, and that IPA in particular, did not gain immediate acclaim, finding a fan base only among a relatively small number of craft beer enthusiasts. Stone’s ales were often thought too bitter and strong by the standards of those days when the market was dominated by the bland lagers brewed by the Big Brewers. But the geniuses behind Stone Brewing (Greg Koch and Steve Wagner) kept plugging away, taking Stone Brewery from a cult following to global brewing powerhouse. Stone Brewing initially eschewed marketing and advertising, selling their beers mostly by word-of-mouth and insanely clever bottle copy. Today, it’s the 9th largest craft brewery in the U.S.
Now, let’s take a look at Stone’s IPA. It pours a golden, honey amber color with a thick, sticky lacing. Take a sniff, inhale deeply, and what you get is a heady aroma of herbal hops, pine, some citrus fruitiness, some honey and maybe even a hint of apple. In comparison to today’s West Coast hop bombs with their intense tropical and citrus flavors, Stone’s IPA almost smells relatively neutral. You can still detect the underlying malty sweetness.
The hoppy bitterness is the first thing that greets your palate. It’s crisp, delicious and lingers all over the palate. While the hoppy bitterness is pronounced, it does not hide the malt base. It’s balanced nicely enough that the bitter flows into the mildly sweet, bready malts—and what’s left after your first swallow is a whole lot more of the hoppy bitterness, but the malts are definitely there. The early West Coast IPAs still left some room to accentuate, and even appreciate, the malt base. As the beer warms a bit, I begin to catch hints of tropical fruit flavors at the back of my palate. But the hops are impossible to ignore, lingering until your next sip and the next, until your glass is drained and you’re left still left with the pleasant, bitter hop finish dancing all over the place.
Overall, this is still an awesome beer, and as one of the IPA pioneers, it still holds a special place in my heart. I will still occasionally pick up a 6-pack if it’s on sale, but I must admit I suffer from the overabundance of IPAs on the market and will usually go for something different. Are there better IPAs than Stone? Certainly, and I’m endlessly seeking them out. But dammit, if I don’t get sick of the constant searching sometimes and just say, “The hell with it! Grab a sixer of the Stone and be done with it!” After all, it was my first love… and how do you walk away so casually if she comes around again and coyly starts reminding you about the old times? —J.A.