India Pale Ales
Originally published April 14, 2010
ONE OF THE most popular craft beer styles today is the I.P.A. or India Pale Ale, which is enjoying a renaissance that began roughly two decades ago as a taste for increasingly hoppy beers gripped beer lovers across the country, perhaps nowhere more so than along the West Coast.
Contrary to what the name might suggest, India Pale Ales did not originate in India, but in England. And the original IPAs were not brewed specifically for the Indian market, either.
In the 18th century, George Hodgson’s Bow Brewery in London was selling beer to the East India Company, which loaded the brews onto ships bound for India. One beers Hodgson made for the bustling India market was known then as October beer, a beer popular with the wealthy class at that time. It was pale, strong and well-hopped, and meant to be aged for at least two years on country estates. It was generally brewed in the fall, hence the name.
But unlike the other beers exported to India, something quite remarkable happened to the October beer over the often four-month journey by ship around the southern tip of Africa and then north again to India. The changes in temperature from crossing the equator twice, along with the incessant rocking and rolling of the ship itself, transformed the beer into something else entirely. By all accounts, the beer enjoyed the complexity of a brew many years old. It quickly became very popular with the soldiers and Company men in India.
Greed and water
But after decades of success, the Bow Brewery grew complacent — and greedy. They tried to squeeze the East India Company for more money, not the best idea with a company larger than most nations. East India was essentially the world’s first multinational.
A company director suggested to Samuel Allsop, a prominent brewer in central England, that he might try his hand at shipping beer to India. Allsop’s brewery was in Burton-on-Trent, which already enjoyed a reputation for its water. The water below Burton was locked in 10,000-year old aquifers and was loaded with gypsum, whose calcium sulfate gave the beer a subtle sulfurous note. This became known as the “Burton snatch” and proved to be exceptionally desirable in pale ales and similarly hoppy beers, much like India Pale Ales.
By 1888, Burton was producing 3 million barrels of beer annually, or 25 percent of all beer brewed in England, and breweries with familiar names such as Bass, Boddington, Marston and Worthington made fortunes. But shipping became faster, tastes changed and India gained its independence. By the 1950s, IPAs were all but extinct.
The microbrewery revolution hit the United States in the 1980s. In the early days of craft beer, the pale ale and amber ale were the most common styles brewed, and many of the most popular — such as Anchor’s Liberty Ale or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — used more aromatic hops than the big brewers or the English beers that inspired them. Both those beers used Cascade hops, which give the beer a distinct citrus aroma signature. Anchor and Sierra Nevada’s ales and other hoppy beers whet the appetite for what would follow, as brewers added more and more hops and began reviving the India Pale Ale.
West Coast brewers, having the advantage of living close to the hop fields of Washington and Oregon, began experimenting with new, more aromatic varieties. Hop varieties are somewhat similar to grape varietals, in that each hop gives the beer a distinctive aroma and flavor, and they can be combined to create an endless variety of taste sensations. The most ardent beer fans loved the new ales, and by the mid-1990s, almost every brewery up and down the West Coast was making an IPA.
Since then, the category at the Great American Beer Festival with the most entries consistently has been American-style IPA. And brewers have created beers with even crazier concentrations of hops, such as Imperial (or double) IPAs and even triple IPAs. Today, many of the best IPAs in America, if not the world, are made on the West Coast.
Some of my favorites include Bear Republic’s Racer 5, 21st Amendment Brew Free or Die IPA, Drake’s IPA, Lagunitas IPA, Firestone Walker’s Union Jack, Moonlight’s Bombay by Boat, Russian River’s Blind Pig and Speakeasy’s Big Daddy. But frankly that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as good IPAs can be found nearly everywhere on the West Coast. San Diego has great IPAs, as does Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The same is true in Washington, where the Yakima Valley grows about 70 percent of all American hops.
If you’ve never tried an IPA or already have a favorite, buy three or four. Try them side-by-side. You’ll be amazed at the variety of flavors and aromas — citrus, grapefruit, herbal, grassy, earthy, floral and more — from the various combinations of hops.
Brewers often say, malt is the soul of beer, but hops are its heart and spice. And who doesn’t like a little spice in their life? It’s good for the heart.