As promised, the long lost (well not too long) and slightly doctored alternate version of my IPA profile for the April issue of West Coaster:
It’s no secret that a warm climate is conducive to beer drinking. There’s nothing quite like quenching you thirst on a hot San Diego afternoon with a crisp, cold, hoppy local beer. Back in the late 18th century and 19th century, British ex-pats in India would have absolutely agreed. Well, except for the local part. We do IPA here as well as anywhere in the world, and better than almost anywhere in the world. If you are a die-hard fan of local and awesome beer, you probably know the style well. If you are just dipping your toes in the craft beer world, this is the beer that has made San Diego famous in the greater craft beer community. In its current interpretation, India Pale Ale, commonly abbreviated as IPA, is a beer of gold-to-copper color that is high on hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma, and tends to be higher in alcohol than regular pale ale. Beyond that, IPA has taken many forms over the past couple-hundred years, from high in alcohol and aged for months in wooden barrels, to low in alcohol and drunk as soon as possible.
IPA got its start with the Bow Brewery on the river Thames in the late 18th century, though it wasn’t called IPA for several decades after. Owner George Hodgson gained control of the trade of beer and ale to India through fortuitous location and generous credit to the East India Company, who had a monopoly on trade to the colonies. Hodgson sent several beers to India, including the ever-popular porter, but his strong pale ale, called “October beer” became a hit after it was discovered that it aged perfectly in the cask during the sea voyage. As was the common practice for export beers at that time, it was hopped at a much higher rate than beers destined for domestic consumption on a shorter time frame. The Brits in India loved it and Hodgson made a fortune. After some shady business practices by his successors in the early 1820s, the East India Company approached Samuel Allsopp of Burton to produce a suitable replacement for Hodgson’s product. Up to this time, the brewers in Burton had been known for their Burton ales, which were strong, dark, and sweet. They had a thriving export market in the Baltic until the Russians imposed a high tariff that effectively shut them out. The Indian market seemed like a good way to regain that lost market, and Allsopp got to work in producing a bitter, pale beer to send to India.
There has been much inaccurate speculation about the nature and genesis of the original IPA. For one, there was never a definitive invention of the style; Hodgson simply exported beers that he had already brewed. It was well known at the time that beers brewed for export to tropical climates needed to be hopped at higher rates than beers for domestic consumption, in order to keep longer. IPA was also not a particularly strong beer, as is often thought today. In a brewer’s range in the 1800s, IPA was likely to be one of the weaker beers. They didn’t mess around back then. IPA kept well for two reasons: it had a ton of hops in it, which have anti-microbial properties, and it was attenuated to a higher degree than most other beers, leaving less residual sugars for spoilage organisms to consume, and a dryer flavor than most other beers. So what we can take away from the old IPAs is mostly that they were very dry, considerably hoppy, and of a moderate gravity for the time period. They were also not drunk fresh, with domestic versions being hopped at about half the rate of export versions so that they could mellow to acceptable drinkability in less time.
When Allsopp set about creating his own beer for the Indian market, something happened that was unexpected: the water in Burton, which is very hard with calcium sulphate (gypsum) allowed him to make a paler beer with an even better hop flavor than what Hodgson had been brewing near London. Burton IPAs, soon brewed by other local brewers such as Bass, became preferred in India to Hodgson’s products. It took several decades, but brewers in other cities realized that it was the higher gypsum content of the Burton water that allowed for such pale, deliciously hoppy beers. They started “Burtonizing” their brewing liquor (the term used for water used in brewing) by adding gypsum. By this time, IPA was being brewed all over Britain for the domestic and export markets, even up in Edinburgh. Domestic IPA was hopped with about half the amount of hops as the IPA sent to India, and was in some cases just a renaming of a bitter pale beer that a brewery already made.
The first World War and the subsequent shortage of raw ingredients took its toll on the strength of British beers. Everything that was taxed for the domestic market got weaker, and IPA was no exception. While in the late 1800s, you might have seen an original gravity of 1.055-60 and an ABV of about 6.5%, things bottomed out with beers like Greene King IPA, at a puny 1.036 original gravity and 3.5% ABV. While beers like this may have remained hoppier than your standard pale ale, they were sometimes only distinguishable in name. Over the 20th century, IPA in England averaged about 1.040 original gravity and the low four percent range of alcohol. Sound familiar? If you’ve had San Diego County Session Ale, the collaboration between Stone, Ballast Point, and Kelsey McNair, you’ve had what is essentially an Americanized version of the 20th century British IPA style.
IPA started out slowly with the American beer renaissance but was hitting its stride by the time many of the well-known names in San Diego got going. Early craft beers like Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale got American beer drinkers turned on to the fruitier, piney, and floral flavors of American hop varieties (Cascade in the case of those two beers), and Americanized versions of English pale ales started to thrive. The American model for IPA has typically looked back to the strength and hoppiness of the 19th century English IPAs for inspiration. IPAs today tend to be 6-7.5% alcohol by volume and very bitter and hoppy. The west coast and San Diego in particular are known for IPAs that pack more hops and alcohol than most others. Hop flavor and aroma are definitely emphasized more in modern IPAs than those of 150 years ago, and IPAs are typically consumed as fresh as possible in order to preserve the fragile, volatile hop oils that create the wonderful fruity, citrucy, piney, floral, and spicy flavors and aromas that are associated with American hop varieties. Newer varieties such as citra, simcoe, and the New Zealand-grown nelson sauvin and Australian galaxy have been very popular recently. Brewers today typically add a huge amount of hops at the end of the boil, which adds less bitterness but more flavor and aroma. They then add more hops to the beer post-fermentation, which is called dry hopping. Hop oils are alcohol soluble, and the beer will slowly extract more hop aroma over several days. Some brewers who serve their IPAs from a firkin will even put more hops in it, and they will remain in the beer until it has been dispensed.
My favorite IPAs tend to be on the paler, dryer side, with lots of hop aroma and a somewhat restrained bitterness. I like a good hop bomb, but balance is still important in a style like IPA. I prefer a softer bitterness and lower finishing gravity than a more harshly bitter beer with sweet caramel malt and lower attenuation for balance. Balance come in strange ways though. Pliny the Elder form Russian River has a calculated 240 or so IBUs (measured at about 95 I think) but is still very balanced. I think part of it has to do with late hop amounts. This isn’t based on published literature, but I think that hop oils and other extracted compounds from more hops boiled for less time (or dry hopped) actually balance higher levels of iso-alpha acid I the beer. How else can you explain a 95 measured IBU beer that finishes at 1.011 terminal gravity and actually has good balance?
Might as well tack on some recommendations here at the end right? I’ll start with NorCal IPAs that I love (gotta go local for the freshest beer), then move south and finally to the rest of the world. Russian River is without a doubt one of the forerunners in the hoppy beer game. Blind Pig can be found in bottles and on draught, and Russian River IPA and Hopfather can also be found on draught sometimes. All three are dry and very aromatic, with Pig being the driest and Hopfather just being ridiculously fruity and aromatic. Auburn Alehouse, just off of I-80 on the way to Tahoe, makes a great IPA called Gold Digger. Stop there the next time you are going to the mountains. Bear Republic Racer 5 is one of my go-to six packs; a great golden IPA with a nice balance of lightly sweet malt and citrus hop aroma. Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada both make more caramel-heavy IPAs but both are still good beers. I like the lower alcohol and easy drinking of Lagunitas IPA, even if it’s a bit sweet. Moonlight’s Bombay By Boat is draught only but a great pint if you see it on tap. Speakeasy Godfather IPA is also one that I like and can be easily found in bottles. Ditto for Drakes IPA, though it’s a maltier take on the style. There are a lot of breweries and brewpubs with good draught-only IPAs that can be spot-on when fresh. You’ve really just got to get out there and find something local, which is likely to be fresh, and that’s really one of the most important parts of a good IPA. I haven’t had the IPA from High Water yet, but brewer Steve Altimari made one of the best IPAs that I’ve ever had when he was the brewmaster at Valley, so I would give that a shot if you see it.
Moving our way south, Firestone Walker Union Jack is a fantastic IPA that has a nice malt presence but stays away from sweet caramel flavors. It’s won the Great American Beer Festival gold medal for American IPA a couple times, so I must not be the only one that likes it. Goleta’s Hollister Brewing Co. makes some very tasty IPAs and is worth a stop if you are in the area. Down in San Diego, any IPA from Alpine Brewing Co. is amazing, with Nelson (featuring nelson sauvin hops) probably my favorite. Ballast Point also makes an amazing IPA in Sculpin, which combines a huge stone fruit and citrus hop bouquet with a light body and dry malt flavor. They also do a great IPA that is fermented as a lager, called Fathom India Pale Lager. Stone’s IPA is a classic in my book, as are the IPAs from any of the Pizza Port locations. There’s a lot of good hoppy beer being brewed down there.
Moving across the country, I have less experience, but there is definitely some nice stuff coming out the the Pacific North West, home to our country’s hop growing regions of the Yakima and Willamette valleys. Hopworks in Portland makes an awesome organic IPA. Pelican IPA and Walking Man IPA are also beers that I quite liked on my last trip up to Portland. The Midwest has some well-known IPAs that I have also really enjoyed. Bells Two Hearted, Surly Furious, Founders Harvest Ale, Town Hall Massala Mama, and Three Floyds Broodoo are all worthy of seeking out. I wish I had more experience with East Coast IPAs. I know there are great ones out there, but the only ones that I’ve had and really liked were Smuttynose IPA and Heavy Seas Loose Cannon. A lot of East Coast IPAs tend to be maltier and yeastier with less hop aroma, but I think that is changing as more brewers have been shifting to the “West Coast” style.
There are a ton more great IPAs than what I’ve listed, but these have just stood out to me over the last couple years. I always give a brewpub IPA a go because I think the style is just at its best when served fresh and on tap at the source. Hop flavors and aromas are relatively volatile and sensitive to heat, so draught is just better than bottle in any case.
Something that is not a new idea but seems to be gaining more popularity in the last couple years, is the lower-alcohol or “session” IPA. Beers like 21st Amendment Bitter American, Drakes Alpha Sessions, Alpine Hoppy Birthday, Stone San Diego County Session Ale, and Triple Rock Demolition Ale are in the 5% and under range and pack all the hop flavor and aroma that you would expect in a 6%+ American IPA. The modern American interpretation of the style has generally been stronger than regular pale ale, but history tells us that this was hardly every the case in the past. The only real difference (when there really was one) was that IPA was more attenuated and hoppier, so I think that these beers are legitimate IPAs. I hops that more brewers continue with this trend. I love a good hoppy beer that is also easy to drink a few pints of. Sometimes I’m tempted to drink 3-4 pints of a 7% IPA, but that will do a number on your liver. The English have actually had this style for a coule decades now, and generally call it “golden ale” and more recently “Mid-Atlantic pale ale.” Their versions tend to combine all pale English malt with lots of either English or American hops. Thornbridge Kipling, actually called a “South Pacific pale ale” by the brewer due to its use of nelson sauvin hops from New Zealand, was probably my most memorable pint from my trip to England last fall.
What is it about hops that some beer drinkers find so captivating? Is it the bitterness? The complex aromas? The fun of picking out varieties in your favorite IPA like you might talk about grape varieties in a good wine? Whatever it is, I don’t think hoppy beers are a fad in American brewing like some people claim. Yes, many IPAs are “criminally hopped” as my sensory professor, Dr. Sacher, proclaimed as he introduced us to the style during our sensory training session at Doemens. Germans… what can you do? But tastes they are a changin’ and I don’t think hops are going anywhere. The IPA, as the quintessential hoppy beer, is going to be popular for a long time.