The origins of this iconic beer style lay at the heart of the British Empire, and it was first brewed between 1780s and 1823 in London. India Pale Ale was the export version of Pale Ale.
The export edition gained its name due to its popularity with the East India Company traders, and was thought to have faired the long journey to india better due to its high hop content and alcohol strength – both of which have a preservative effect on beer.
Demand for the beer back in Britain resulted in it being produced for the home market by around 1840. It was heavily associated with the town of Burton-on-Trent, which became internationally famous due to the gypsum-rich local water, which was ideally suited to making hoppy, pale beers.
Unfortunately, due to changing fashion and drinking habits, many of the original beers in Britain baring the brand “IPA” are now simply “session bitters” at around 3.5 – 4%, and should have dropped the term IPA long ago. While there is nothing wrong with these beers in isolation, they just simply aren’t IPA’s.
The good news is, due to the international growth of craft beer, many traditional styles of beer are being recreated and reinvented, and lucky for us – IPA’s are no exception.
The beer style has become particularly popular in the US, where craft brewers have super-charged the style – creating highly hopped brews crammed full of citrus heavy American hop flavours. Some brewers are even pushing the boundaries to the next level by creating Double IPA’s containing even more hops, and typically having a gravity of greater than 7.5%vol.
More about hops…
Hops have both a preservative, bitter, flavourful, and aromatic effect on beer. Grown in a narrow region of the northern hemisphere, hops help to balance out the malt sweetness of beer, helping to produce a well rounded flavour.
It was discovered that you could increase a beers shelf life by increasing its hop & alcohol content. As a result, IPA’s are extremely bitter and high in alcohol. Bitterness is often measured in IBU’s (International Bitterness Units), with high numeric values representing highly bitter beers. Many heavily hopped IPA’s can often have IBU measurements of 100 or more.
In Britain the trend has been more toward recreation rather than pushing to extremes, with breweries such as Meantime, Thornbridge, and Fullers all creating authentic IPA’s – some of which are made from entirely British hops varieties.
It’s great to see such an iconic and historically important beer returned to former glory, however, as mentioned previously, there is still much confusion in the UK over what makes an authentic IPA due to years of watering down the style and branding session bitters as IPA.
Fortunately, brewers like Meantime and Thornbridge are taking the success of IPA in the US and putting a uniquely British stamp on them. I’m a firm believer that there is much the Brits can learn from the entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm of American brewers, while retaining the authenticity of this uniquely British style. Meantime even package their IPA in a corked Champagne style bottle – adding a touch of much needed dinner table class to the beer market. Pomp and circumstance, is, after all, something us Brits do very well.
The difference between the IPA’s now brewed in North America, and the ones brewed in the UK have sparked much debate as to which nations interpretation is “better”, but the reality is, it’s entirely down to taste.
In keeping with Americas taste for “larger than life”, you will often find their IPA’s to be much more intense than the UK equivalent. Some would argue that this makes them vulgar, distasteful and simply too extreme. However, I would argue that it’s more like having a very hot curry. Yes, it’s extreme, yes it can even be mildly painful, but it sure is exciting, pleasurable, and almost restorative . After all, beer is suppose to be fun.
Great examples of India Pale Ales on both sides:
- Dog Fish Head – 60 Minute IPA
- Stone Brewing – Stone Ruination IPA – (100IBUs – very hoppy!)
- Sierra Navada – Torpedo IPA
- Howe Sound – Devils Elbow IPA
- Phillips – Hop Circle IPA
- R&B Brewing – Hoppelganger
- Thornbridge – Jaipur IPA
- Meantime Brewing – India Pale Ale
- Brew Dog – Punk IPA
- Fullers – Bengal Lancer
I could write for hours about the topic of IPA, but hopefully this serves as a top level introduction to a historic, diverse, and increasingly exciting genre of beer. Transatlantic Brews would like to hear your opinion and experience of IPA’s. Do you hate over hopped beers? Are you a self diagnosed hop-head? Either way, let us know.