I remember a time, when I first got into craft beer around 2008, that “IPA” had a very different definition than it does today. Or perhaps “definition” isn’t quite the correct word, but a very different implication. IPAs were bitter, bruisingly bitter. You could bet on every single IPA review on Beer Advocate containing the exact same two words somewhere in it: “Citrus.” “Pine.” That’s how people saw American IPA as a style. American hops were simply personified by the likes of Cascade, Centennial, Chinook.
It’s hard to believe how things have changed since those days, in terms of the widening of the style. Those old-school West Coast IPAs haven’t been replaced—there are still more citrusy, piney, bitter IPAs out there than you can shake a stick at—but they’ve been supplemented by so many other IPA profiles and substyles. When someone defines a beer as an American IPA, it doesn’t tell us nearly as much as it used to.
Much of this has been driven by the arrival of newer hop varieties and the sourcing of hops from all over the globe. Australia and New Zealand both introduced mind-blowing new varieties into the brewer’s bag of tricks. European noble hops evolved to offer entirely new flavor combinations. Simultaneously, new American hops arrived to mimic some of those characteristics. We live now in the age of Citra, of Mosaic, and of hop blends such as Falconer’s Flight, that can deliver a whole plethora of new flavors in addition to the old standbys. For breweries, it’s both exciting (because of the new possibilities) and frustrating (because some varieties are so hard to get).
Surly’s Todd the Axe Man is an American India pale ale that belongs thoroughly to the new school of IPA. A lot of these tropical fruit-heavy, complex, aromatically intense IPAs have come through in the last few years, bearing a banner for IPA as an evolving style, but let’s make one thing clear: Few of them have ever been this outright delicious. Todd the Axe Man isn’t just one of the best IPAs I’ve ever had, it’s one of the best beers I’ve ever had.
The aromatics are absolutely heavenly, redolent in candy-like tropical fruits—pineapple, grapefruit, mango and more. There’s even a little bit of green, grassiness and a suggestion of honey-sweet malt. If Surly could take this aroma and put it in a Glade plug-in, I’d install one in my home tomorrow.
On the palate, it’s very representative of the this aromatic, tropical substyle that has become so popular in IPA. Bitterness is medium but very soft and supple, never intruding or holding you back from the next sip. Flavors are super tropical fruity, but as it warms up I’m also heavily reminded of stone fruit—think peach and apricot. Good luck in keeping the glass full long enough for it to warm up, though. Malt is negligible—the hop flavors are just so wonderful that you’ll be unlikely to note it.
It’s remarkable how the bellwether of this style has moved away from “bitter and bone dry” to “drinkable and off-dry.” It speaks to the maturation of the American beer drinker’s palate and the acceptance of beer as something pleasing first and foremost over something “challenging.” More and more brewers seem to be of the opinion that we’ve had a tendency to treat beer with just a little bit too much grave seriousness. Todd the Axe Man is like a cure-all to that condition: It’s simply delicious. The only people I can see drinking this and not enjoying it are people who hate fruity hop flavors, and I feel bad for those people.
Surly has created an absolutely outstanding IPA here. In two years of reviewing beer for Paste, this is now the highest rating I’ve ever given. I can’t say any more. It’s superb stuff.
Brewery: Surly Brewing Co.
City: Minneapolis, MN
Style American IPA
Availability: “Occasional cans and kegs,” 16 oz cans
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. He’s humbled by how good this beer is. You can follow him on Twitter.