March 1, 2012
Making the rounds at festivals, many breweries are touting their IPA. At one festival last week, we even had three different kinds on offer. Explaining the abbreviation — India Pale Ale — doesn’t help much. What is an India Pale Ale? How does it differ from a Pale Ale? Why India? And why is it so bitter? Or even more importantly, why would we intentionally make a bitter beer?
The exact origins of IPA are in doubt, and bloggers besides myself have invested more labor than I to establish when brewers began making the beer that we call IPA today. We do know that beginning in the 18th century, during the British foray into India, the colonizing Brits demanded beer sent from their homeland. They drank all their favorite beers from home (Porter, Pale Ale, etc.), but records show that over time, breweries began producing a “Pale Ale as prepared for India,” and that eventually, “India Pale Ale” was marketed in Britain as a separate concoction from plain-old Pale Ale.
The difference then and now between a Pale Ale and an IPA comes down to hops, specifically that there are more of them in the latter than in the former. It has been known for awhile that hops help to preserve beer and prevent it from spoiling. This, combined with their bitter qualities (to balance the sweet malt flavor from the barley) and their preference for growing in traditional beer-producing countries, makes them a useful ingredient in beer. Over time, brewers in England made it a policy to add extra hops to beers made for export to India, since the warm, tropical climate made the beer more prone to spoilage on arrival. Thus the more heavily-hopped version of Pale Ale took on the name “India Pale Ale.” The quenching, refreshing bitterness from the hops tasted so good that people decided to start drinking it outside of India.
So goes the early history of IPA, but it does not stop there. Even though the beer is British in origin, it might be considered the defining style of American craft brewing. Especially on the West Coast, it is hard to find a brewery which does not produce one (with HopShock, SanTan is no exception), and its complex, bitter flavors stand in bold opposition to the average “light” beer. Yet compare any two breweries IPAs side by side, and you will sense great variation, much of which is due to the hop varieties being used.
A serious discussion of hop varieties should be kept for a later post, but suffice it to say that your standard American IPA will differ in flavor from the first barrels which made their way across the Indian Ocean. Golding hops are the classic British hop which appears in an English-style IPA. The flavor and aroma are simultaneously floral and grassy, with a pungent earthiness. Samuel Smith’s, a brewery in England, exports an IPA in this style, and Left Hand Brewing in Colorado makes an English-style IPA called 400-Pound Monkey. This is one of my favorite styles of beer.
The American IPA, in comparison, features hop varieties grown in America, especially in the Pacific Northwest, which carry a harsher bitterness, and have flavors tending towards citrus (especially bitter citrus — think grapefruit or blood orange), with a more resinous, piney backdrop where English hops tend to be grassier. Cascade hops are the traditional centerpiece in an American IPA — think of classic West Coast beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Anchor Liberty Ale. But with the emergence of creative craft brewers, hop growers are doing their own experimentation. Recent varieties such as Simcoe and Citra have found their way into more IPAs, and rumors of experimental varieties abound, suggesting flavors we may have never seen in IPA — or in beer — before. It certainly is a long way from a muggy Calcutta summer, sweating away the days until the next cargo of beer arrives.
Of course, I have not even covered Belgian IPAs, Black IPAs, Double IPAs, and so forth. Maybe one day on Clayton’s Corner!