India Pale Ale- a craft beer staple
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
Craft beer comes in seemingly limitless variety. Doppelbocks, imperial stouts, and Belgian-style tripels dot the shelves of any beer store worth its salt, and nearly every small brewery makes some form of extreme, unique, or rare beer style, if only for the bragging rights. IPA, however, spans the craft brewing scene from coast to coast. While the style may be universal, and an anchor point for most breweries’ product lines, the flavors of IPA can be intriguingly diverse.
IPA, it should be noted, stands for India Pale Ale. What you get when you order one is a modern interpretation of the Victorian-era pale ale that Breweries in England made stronger and hoppier in order to survive the sea voyage around Africa to its Indian colonial holdings. The hops acted as a preservative, preventing the unpasteurized ale from going bad during the long, sweltering journey. What the colonists tasted was substantially bitterer than the pale ales they would daintily quaff in the social parlours back in Britain.
When American homebrewing and craft brewing got going, IPA’s adventuresome history and crisp hop bite captured the imaginations of drinkers who were used to the far tamer flavor of American light lager. As the craft beer experiment exploded into a full-blown industry, American brewers approached IPA with an experimental spirit, as well as that uniquely American trait of pushing something to its limits of good taste.
Today, American IPA eclipses the British original in every possible aspect except subtlety. We’ve made IPA exponentially stronger, heavier, and hoppier than anything those colonials in India would have experienced.
That freedom from tradition is both a benefit and a curse. The English would argue that a good British IPA, such as Samuel Smith’s India Ale, embodies two hundred years of brewing expertise and an affinity for how to use the hard water of the Trent river combined with noble English hops to create a beer that’s a perfect mélange of body, flavor, and nippy hop finish. Whereas their American counterparts might point out that, compared to Colorado’s monstrous Great Divide Titan IPA, their English stuff hardly has flavor at all, paling compared to Titan’s astringent citrus bitterness, not to mention its near 7% alcohol content (by volume).
Of course, neither side is right in this hypothetical argument. Both Sam Smith India Ale and Great Divide Titan IPA are excellent. The soft, earthy flavor of the English IPA might go very well with an after-dinner fruit and cheese plate, whereas the tangy explosion of flavor provided by an extreme American IPA like Titan would pretty much kill the taste of anything you put in your mouth for the next hour. Ultimately, it all depends on the type of flavor the drinker is looking for.
We kind of lament the fact that American brewers take IPA to sometimes ridiculous extremes. It’s getting to the point where ordering that dry-hopped, double Imperial 12% IPA is the equivalent of ordering the super-hot chicken wings: a display of unadulterated machismo and little more.
But there are plenty of American IPAs (Great Divide Titan IPA being one of them) that wear their bold flavor very well. Brooklyn IPA, Ithaca Cascazilla, and Lagunitas IPA, all readily available in Western New York, combine their bitter flavors, alcoholic warming, and weighty mouthfeel into delicious, uncompromising palate-pleasers that frequently convert beer drinkers into raging hopheads.
And, although they won’t admit it, the English like ‘em too.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at http://beercraft.wordpress.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to email@example.com.