Big. Flavourful. Bitter.
The India Pale Ale (IPA) style of beer delivers all of these characters through its celebration of the hop cone.
Just as these characters are celebrated they also scare off those new to Craft beer. After drinking milder beer styles like Lagers the step into larger flavors can be a challenge. It can also be a challenge to understand why they are so celebrated.
The first Thursday in August marks International IPA Day. It’s a great chance to reflect on this iconic beer style and it could be an even better chance to try one for the first time.
My own experience in pushing my palete came through drinking what was at the time was a massively bitter and fruity beer. It was a struggle to get through the pint but there was something there. This curiosity was enough that I ordered another and pushed on, falling in love with the India Pale Ale.
The origins of the IPA are from English beers that were comparatively highly hopped and higher in alcohol to help preserve them on the long sea voyage to India from the English brewing capital of Burton-On-Trent.
Hundreds of years later the American Craft Beer revolution was kick started in the 1970’s by the short lived New Albion Brewing Company and the Anchor Brewing Company. Anchor’s ‘Liberty Ale’ is considered to be the first new world IPA although in 1975 the style name was not used yet.
In essence this beer was Pale Ale (also a term that was not used yet) that used a high hop regime and was also ‘dry hopped’, a process involving the addition of hops after the brew for extra aroma and flavour. It’s a beautiful beer that is mild by today’s IPA standards.
It’s also a drinkable history lesson that’s an easy entry point for those new to IPA’s.
From there Sierra Nevada took these rediscovered brewing techniques and produced their classic Pale Ale, an inspiration for many early Craft Brewers.
These developments were centred in the USA and drew bold on new American hop varieties. The aim of the early Anchor and Sierra Nevada beers was to reference classic English beers styles but put an American stamp on them.
This was done by using only American hops, in particular the Cascade variety which had been released for use in 1972 by the USDA. The Cascade hop is synonymous with Grapefruit like aromas.
It is one of four hop varieties that are regarded as the 4 C’s. They are Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and Columbus.
All of these have played a large part in the evolution of IPA. In fact many of the world’s great IPA’s use only these hops either for flavour or aroma.
As the modern IPA style evolved the passion to push the hop boundaries of drinkers lead to the development of the Double IPA or Imperial IPA. Californian brewer Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing fame is credited with developing this style in the early 1990’s.
Double IPA’s take these bold flavours and turn them up to eleven with massive resinous bitterness and alcohol contents reaching towards 10% ABV.
As with most things the pendulum does swing back the other way and there has been a recent trend towards the “Session IPA”.
These, as the name suggests, are more like a Craft mid-strength beer with a high hop rate.
A very creative example of this is from New Zealand brewery 8 Wired whose very well regarded 8.8% ABV Double IPA “Superconductor” spawned a ‘half’ sibling in the 4.4% ABV Session IPA “Semi-conductor”.
While the modern IPA revolution has had an American focus brewers in the UK have been well aware of its heritage.
Alastair Hook of the Meantime Brewing Company has been producing what are considered to be some of the most faithful recreations of classic beers styles including the IPA.
The UK revival also comes from brash Scottish brewers BrewDog whose ‘Punk IPA’ created a storm when released in 2007.
In the their flagship beer, Punk IPA, BrewDog have focused on new world hops like New Zealand’s Nelson Sauvin to create Tropical flavours and aromas to ride over the bitterness.
These bold flavours and audacious packaging have seen BrewDog become champions of the UK Craft Beer movement and respected internationally.
Locally, Australian beer interest in the IPA has taken much longer but the big flavour train has really gathered momentum in the last few years.
In Australia the American IPA (AIPA) style is driving this growth however some Australian brewers are using only Australian varieties of hops creating an Australian IPA style.
Feral Brewing’s “Hop Hog” American IPA is an icon of Australian IPA Brewing. It ‘s an American IPA style that has won the Critic’s Choice of Australia’s Best Beer for the last three years running.
From a little further up the road in the Swan Valley, Mash Brewing has won the Champion Beer 2014 award at the Australian Beer Awards with their “Copycat” American IPA.
While some of this piece focuses on the modern American take on the India Pale Ale style there have been further developments and sub-groups over time . So here is a quick recap on the variations on the style:
ENGLISH IPA: The origin of the style focuses on lots of fruit characters of a bed of sweet malts with a mild bitterness for the style.
AMERICAN IPA: The modern resurrection of the style with a bold hop bitterness, floral or citrus aromas and a caramel base.
SESSION IPA: Essentially a hoppy Pale Ale and easy entry point for those new to the IPA.
BLACK IPA: The marriage of a Robust Porter (another classic beer style) and a hoppy IPA. Imagine coffee or chocolate malt characters with a ramped up bitterness and Citrus or Tropical notes.
The Goodtimes Eagle Bay BIPA post in “Beer Favourites” is a good local example.
A massive example of the Black IPA is Arbor’s 2014 “Freestyle Fridays #44”.
This would rate as the most bitter beer I have ever tasted.
Beer bitterness is graded by the Internal Bitterness Units (IBU) standard. The easiest way to understand this is from some examples.
CORONA is about 15 IBU
FERAL Hop Hog is about 50 IBU
RUSSIAN RIVER Pliny, the Elder Double IPA is about 100 IBU
ARBOR Freestyle Friday #44 2014 is about 1200 IBU
This is a HUGE beer that will challenge the most seasoned beer drinker!
So where does the new Craft Beer drinker go with all of this?
I believe it’s all about expectation. If you understand and expect bigger flavours from your beer then you’ll have much more chance of enjoying or at least respecting them.
Unfortunately being blindsided by massive flavours, bitterness and a passionate Craft beer friend may not be the best way to start with this style.
From my experience, treat this style with respect and it will give it back to you in spades.
Some suggested staring points for IPA’s would be:
BREWDOG – Punk IPA
ANCHOR BREWING – Liberty Ale
FERAL BREWING – Hop Hog
Cheers to the India Pale Ale!
Drink better. Be good.