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Beer Review: 21st Amendment's Down to Earth is an Easy-Drinking Modern IPA

What defines a "modern" IPA?

As a drinking parent with a toddler problem, I carefully monitor my alcohol intake. Sensible imbibing is a fine precept for everyone, but it’s especially true for folks who make their bucks from booze. Back in my twenties, when the thought of fathering a child was as foreign as affordable health insurance, it was perfectly acceptable to bar-hop away my nights and days, smashed and stumbling, salty and slit-eyed. As long as I woke up and clacked out stories, I could put the "fun" in functional drunk.

My twenties were a judgment-free decade. My thirties welcomed new responses to wanton debauchery. Instead of high-fives, Monday morning hangovers were met with eyebrows arched high. Falling down and slurring words was bad form, the sign of an amateur, not a professional. Moderation became my middle name.

The importance of restraint was underscored one day in November 2013 when, at midnight’s stroke, my daughter, Violet, squirmed into the world. To celebrate I sipped Sierra Nevada’s citrusy, piney and decently potent Celebration Ale, chased by multiple rounds. Drinking was easy. The hard part was changing a diaper after sipping the better part of a six-pack.

The messy fumbling was my first introduction to this unwavering formula: strong beers + parenting = disaster. I didn’t want to be a cliché, dropping double IPAs and then my daughter. The opposite extreme, teetotaling, was totally unappealing. After all, drinking was key to properly doing my job. As a solution, I developed a boozy system of checks and balances. After Violet went to bed, I could sample heavy-hitting imperial stouts, double IPAs and other eyesight-blurrers. During the daylight hours—and while on dad duty—I’d sip the likes of lower-strength lagers, witbiers and session IPAs.

Like most every craft beer consumer, I love a good IPA, the bitter symbol of modern American brewing. Socked with aromas of lemons and oranges, mangoes and papayas, medical-grade marijuana and pine trees, IPAs are delivery vehicles for full-throttle aroma and flavor. Also: alcohol. Many IPAs top 6, 7 or 8 percent ABV, meaning two or three pints would make me a baby-dropping butter fingers.

Happily, the last few years have seen brewers give IPAs an alcoholic haircut, dropping the ABV while keeping flavor and aroma cranked high. Session IPAs—as in, you can sip several in a drinking session—have become a screaming phenomenon. Ever since Founders debuted its massively successful All Day IPA in 2010 (it went year-round in 2012), breweries have rushed to roll out lower-alcohol IPAs. Lagunitas DayTime. Left Hand Introvert. Stone Go To. Drake’s Alpha Session. Flying Dog Easy IPA. The list stretches into hop-scented infinity.

Happily, the last few years have seen brewers give IPAs an alcoholic haircut, dropping the ABV while keeping flavor and aroma cranked high.

Before session IPAs became all the craze, there was 21st Amendment’s Bitter American. The San Francisco brewery was born in 2000, when writer Nico Freccia and paralegal-turned-brewer Shaun O’Sullivan opened a brewpub right by the Giants' new baseball stadium. The proximity to 81 annual home games helped the brewpub survive in the lean early years—thanks, dotcom crash!—and it’s since grown into one of the country’s 50 biggest craft breweries.

The company’s canned beer line-up (all featuring quirky, graphic-intensive artwork) includes the summery Hell or High Watermelon wheat beer; spiced Fireside Chat strong ale; roasty and lightly resinous Back in Black IPA; and until recently, Bitter American. First released in early 2007 at the brewpub, the golden "extra pale ale" was an easy-sipping tango of nuts and biscuits, grapefruit and pine, lemons and flowers. At 4.4 percent ABV, Bitter American was a beer that you could polish off by the six-pack.

I did. Repeatedly. Until this spring, when news came down the pipeline that 21st Amendment was killing the brand. From a marketing standpoint, I understood the move. Bitter American was never branded a session IPA. Those three letters are sales gold. Moreover, the word "bitter" is a bit misleading, as the beer was never all that bitter. Despite its popularity, the beer was dispatched to the dustbin, replaced by Down to Earth.

Though branded a session IPA, Down to Earth is not all that different from Bitter American. The ABV (4.4 percent) and bitterness (42 IBUs) are identical, and like its predecessor, DtE is made with plenty of Golden Promise malt, which supplies that nutty, toasty note. The huge difference is the hops. The session IPA is lavishly flavored with voguish Mosaic, a cultivar that calls to mind berries and tropical fruit. The beer drinks crisp and clean, the bitterness a moderate peck on your palate.

It’s a session IPA tuned to modern tastes, a cooler-ready crowd-pleaser that’ll keep the party going all day and night, whether you’re picnicking, at the beach or taking care of a tiny, precious human.

Photo courtesy of 21st Amendment Brewery

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