ONCE, THE IPA was a fierce thing.
The IPA, or India pale ale, traditionally has been a robust, tough-guy kind of beer. Strong, with the highest ABVs of any brews, and bitter sometimes to the point of pain, it originally was developed by manufacturers in Britain as a beer that could stay fresh on the long sea voyages to their colonies in far-off lands, beer meant to keep soldiers and sailors whetted on hot tropical days and perhaps remind them of the crisp, cool, bracingly harsh climate back home.
While IPAs did not begin as the superstrong products they often are today, modern brewers steadily have upped the alcohol content (and the hoppiness) over the years, and thus the IPA, often brewed nationally with Washington’s Cascade or Chinook hops, eventually became the “papa bear” of brews.
One wonders what those early salt- and sun-battered tars would have thought of the drink’s most recent incarnation, the milkshake IPA. You might have seen them on tap or in shops, beers with names such as Triple Cheesecake IPA or Mango Fuzzy Navel or Orange Creamsicle.
The signature of a milkshake IPA is the combination of milk sugars (lactose), fruit flavors and a careful balance of added hops to create a flavor profile that definitely appeals to those with a sweet tooth, and, while not as candylike as a sweet wine or cocktail, milkshake IPAs still speak to the part of your brain that appreciates dessert.
Such brews frequently evoke nostalgic candy bars or trendy smoothies, and to those who prefer their beer to dress like a grown-up, this can be off-putting. The marketing is often notably twee, heavy on cartoon fonts and rainbow colors, the most kawaii of all the yeasted brews. To the casual beer drinker, the combination might seem jarring, like seeing a pit bull in a tutu.
Originally, the addition of lactose to beer was largely limited to what were called milk stouts. Stouts, which are usually dark brown top-fermented strong porters such as Guinness, tend to be thick and sweetish, anyway, like fermented molasses, so adding lactose to create a creamier, more chocolaty variation is not completely outré.
Milkshake IPAs are actually a type of hazy or New England IPA (NEIPA). NEIPAs are brewed to taste fruity, look cloudy and taste less bitter than a “traditional” IPA, like a softer version of the original. In the 2010s, with the milkshake IPA, New England brewers amplified this cloudiness and fruitiness with lactose, sending signals to the tongue reminiscent of what you get sipping a McFlurry.
Lactose brings the “creamy” mouthfeel to milk products themselves. Yes, it makes me roll my eyes at myself to talk about “mouthfeel,” but in the case of lactose, that is actually the point of it. Humans are primed to enjoy the sticky, round sweetness of lactose; it’s an essential ingredient in the first thing most of us ever consume: breast milk.
Beer already has sugar in it, of course; the sugar is what the yeast feeds on to produce the alcohol. But lactose is not fermentable, so it doesn’t get consumed by the yeast, which does not have the lactase enzyme and therefore is just as lactose-intolerant as any of your cheese-avoidant friends. Lactose added to a beer brew near the end just sits and waits for the actual drinker to imbibe it.
The style was first made popular by Omnipollo brewing in Stockholm and Tired Hands Brewing Company in Philadelphia, and has been creeping steadily into the consciousness of craft beer consumers. Watching the IPA section of the beer shelf populate with beers that sound like ice cream flavors is a bit like watching the mighty wolf transform, century by century and litter by litter, into the Pomeranian.
Such beers have a high potential of being cloying, and if they’re bad, they’re particularly bad, but a good one can hit you with the surprisingly incongruous appeal of, say, a peanut butter and pickle sandwich. If you’re curious (or already a fan), The Beer Junction in West Seattle and Great Notion in Georgetown and Ballard usually have a good one on tap.
While they are not for everyone, there is room in the beer pantheon for all comers, even if they are marketed at the part of us that still watches Saturday morning cartoons. After all, I might be more of a sled-dog person, but I must admit: Pomeranians are still awfully cute — particularly in a wee raincoat.
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