| Beer, Craft Beer, Hops & Glory, IPA

IPA: the chameleon of beers

The case of beers I put together with mail order company Best of British Beer to accompany my next book club event is designed to reflect the mercurial, elusive character of the craft beer world’s favourite beer style.

Six completely different beers. All of them are, in some way, IPAs.

IPA is the most popular – and most argued over – beer style in craft beer. Everything about it, from its murky origins to its colour, character and, increasingly, murky appearance, is debated passionately across social media and print publications. Its story has been mythologised, misunderstood, and endlessly redefined. Like the broader concept of craft beer itself, I’m not just fascinated by it, I’m fascinated by the fascination around it, by the varying degrees of passion, agitation and disdain it inspires.

This is why, for my third book, I undertook the frankly stupid endeavour of recreating its legendary journey by sea from Burton-on-Trent to Calcutta. This project almost broke me, in many ways, but hey – I got a great book out of it, and we’re discussing that book, and the story behind it, at my third Beer Book Club on Wednesday, 12th May.

For each of these book clubs, I’m attempting to put together a themed case of beers (or ciders, where relevant) that people attending may choose to order to drink along to the chat. Best of British Beer volunteered to help me out with a case for this one, and sent me a bottle of every beer they had in stock with “IPA” on the label. From that, I chose six beers that tell a potted history of the beer that used to be known as India Pale Ale – all quite different from each other, each excellent in its own way.  

IPA was never ‘invented’ as such – it evolved from strong beers meant for keeping, and it has continued to evolve ever since. According to contemporary reports, in the 1780s it was quite dark, murky, and very bitter. In nineteenth century India, it was bright and sparkling, compared to champagne more than anything else. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, changes in taxation and drinking habits saw a steep drop in its alcoholic strength. A few years ago, beer geeks would rage that a beer such as Greene King IPA was not a “proper” IPA because it was only 3.6% ABV. Those critics should know that a few years ago, the original 1928 recipe for GK IPA was discovered, and it’s hardly changed in the almost century since. If you could go back to the mid-twentieth century, any British brewer would have told you that it was typical of what “IPA” was at that time. And anyway, the rise of “session IPAs” means that the strength argument can no lager be coherently made by craft beer scenesters.

The American reinvention of IPA only really took off in the UK a little over a decade ago, and since then the pace of evolution has sped up dramatically. What we now think of as ‘West Coast IPA’ is referred to by some as ‘Old School IPA’. If a beer style that can only be traced back in any meaningful sense to the 1990s is now ‘old school’, what does that make IPA’s 200-year-odd history up to that point?

In a very meaningful sense, the dominant style of the moment – New England IPA – is the opposite of what IPA was before it came along. India Pale Ale became the definitive beer style of the nineteenth century, and cast its shadow over the next, because it was designed to be stored and/or to survive a long sea journey in which it was subject to massive fluctuations in temperature, which contributed to its unique character, in which bitterness was assertive.

Now, IPAs have next to no bitterness at all, and we’re told that we must keep them cold from packaging to consumption and drink them fresh, because their delicate character disappears after a few weeks.

The British soldiers and clerks drinking IPA in Calcutta in the 1860s would have spat out a NEIPA claiming that it was too green, that it hadn’t ‘ripened’. The modern NEIPA fan would (and sometimes does) dismiss traditional IPA as not being IPA at all, because it is not pale enough, not juicy enough.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), commonly regarded in the craft beer world as the arbiter of beer styles, goes so far as to state: “The term ‘IPA’ is intentionally not spelled out as ‘India Pale Ale’ since none of these beers historically went to India, and many aren’t pale.” 

So there we have it: IPA isn’t actually India Pale Ale at all, but an acronym without a home, or even a new word in its own right, a word commonly pronounced “eepa” by beer drinkers who’s first language isn’t English.

In 2014, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont threw his hands up and said, “Fine, let’s face it, every beer is now an IPA.” With that in mind, here are the six beers I’ve chosen that all stake a claim to the title of IPA. I like them all – otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen them – but because of my age and experience, my heart will always be in the Old School.

Wold Top – Scarborough Fair – true to the traditional British style – crisp, bitter and balanced 

Hafod – Freestyle – A great take on what we now call West Coast IPA, resiny and piney with a firm malt backbone

Mor – Ish – Mid-twentieth century-style IPA, gently bitter and clean, lower ABV.

Windsor & Eton – Conqueror – The tautology that is a Black India Pale Ale – a blend of fresh hoppy aromas and deep, chocolatey malt.

Loch Lomond – Zoom Time – Hazy, juicy and with low bitterness, a perfect example of the New England IPA style.

Stonehouse – Vanilla Milkshake – Brewed with vanilla and lactose for an even smoother, creamier body – is this the future of IPA?

The Hops & Glory six-pack is available to buy at £21.95 from Best of British Beer. Ticket-holders for my Hops & Glory book club event on Wednesday 12th May can claim a 10% discount code. Sadly the beers are for UK delivery only, but the event is on Zoom so you can come along wherever in the world you are, and bring your own IPAs, whatever colour, clarity, strength and character they happen to have.

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