In honor of International IPA day this year we thought we’d drop some real IPA knowledge on you! Sam Tierney one of our very own brewers was kind enough to lend us his thoughts and a whole lot of history on this popular style.
“After the #IPApocalypse, only the hoppy will survive.”
-The Beer Jesus
It’s no secret that a warm climate is conducive to beer drinking. There’s nothing quite like quenching your thirst on a hot afternoon with a crisp, cold, hoppy, beer. Back in the late 18th and 19th centuries, British ex-pats in India would have absolutely agreed, though I haven’t been able to find evidence of any self identified “hop heads” during that historical period. In its current interpretation, India Pale Ale, commonly abbreviated as IPA, is a beer of gold-to-copper color that is high in 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 higher in alcohol and aged for months in wooden barrels, to lower in alcohol and drunk as soon as possible. IPA has one of the coolest (yet just as misunderstood) histories in beer, so lets start by taking a hop-lined stroll down the history of craft beer’s fastest-growing style.
IPA got its start at the Bow Brewery on the river Thames, London in the late 18th century, though it wasn’t called IPA until several decades after. Owner George Hodgson gained control of the British trade of beer to India through fortuitous location and generous credit to the East India Company, which had a monopoly on trade to the colonies at that time. Hodgson sent several beers to India, including the dominant beer style of the day, porter. Serendipitously though, his pale ale, called “October beer,” became a hit after it was discovered that it aged perfectly in the cask during the sea voyage, arriving with a perfect balance of flavor and refreshingly sparkling carbonation. 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 in a shorter time frame. The Brits in India loved it and Hodgson made a fortune. After some shady business practices by Hodgson’s successors in the early 1820s, the East India Company approached Samuel Allsopp of Burton Upon Trent to produce a suitable replacement for Hodgson’s product. Until this time, the brewers in Burton had been known for their Burton ales, which were strong, dark, and sweet. They supplied 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 those lost sales, and Allsopp got to work on producing a highly hopped pale ale to send to India.
When Allsopp created his new beer for the Indian market, something happened that was unexpected: the water in Burton, which is very hard due to high levels of calcium sulphate (gypsum) allowed him to make a paler beer with an even better hop flavor than what Hodgson had been brewing in 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 water by adding gypsum, so that they could replicate the Burton beers. 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 pale ale that a brewery already made.
I’m sure that you’ve probably read a Cliff Notes story of IPA on a beer menu or website, but there are a few points that many people tend to get wrong for some reason. 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 in order to prevent spoilage, beers brewed for export to tropical climates needed to be hopped at higher rates than beers for domestic consumption. 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-to-medium strength 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. Alcohol simply wasn’t an important part of the equation. So what we can take away from the first IPAs is mostly that they were very dry, considerably hoppy, and of a moderate strength for the time period. Export versions were consumed after aging considerably on the voyage, but domestic versions were consumed much younger, with accordingly lower hopping rates.
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 often 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. If you are interested in reading more about the history of IPA and other British beer styles, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Amber, Gold, & Black—The History of Britain’s Great Beers by Martyn Cornell.
IPA wasn’t as important to historical American brewing, but it did exist. Ballantine IPA was considerably hoppy and even aged for long periods in oak, though it started to decline and eventually died in the 90′s after being bought out in the early 70′s. Early craft beers like Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale got American beer drinkers turned on to the fruity, 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. From there, it’s been a steady progression toward more and more hops! The modern 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 are very bitter and hoppy, while double or imperial IPAs start at the top of that range and can go to over 10% alcohol and typically have “criminal” hopping rates, to use a descriptor from one of my German brewing professors. The West Coast in particular is known for IPAs that pack more hops and alcohol than many others, though this more extreme take on the style is found virtually everywhere these days. Fresh 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 flavors and aromas that are associated with American hop varieties. Newer varieties such as Citra, Amarillo, Simcoe, and the New Zealand-grown Nelson Sauvin have been very popular recently, along with the classic American “C hops” (Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and Columbus/CTZ).
Brewers today typically add a large amount of hops near or at the end of the boil, which adds more flavor and aroma, as opposed to simply bitterness. They then add more hops to the beer post-fermentation, which is called dry hopping. This process allows the beer to acquire even more hop aroma over several days. If IPA is served from a firkin, the firkin will often be packed with even more dry hops, which remain in the beer until consumption. Simply put, modern American IPA is all about big hop flavor and aroma. As newer varieties of hops continue to come to the market, the flavors and aromas of IPA continue to push into bolder and more interesting territory.
At Firestone Walker, we like our IPAs big and hoppy—a perfect fit for our Californian/British heritage. Union Jack weighs in at 7.5% alcohol and is dry hopped twice, while Double Jack comes in at an even higher 9.5% alcohol and is dry hopped three times. Both beers are all about hop flavor and aroma, with substantial but balanced bitterness, and a more restrained malt flavor that supports but doesn’t get in the way of all that great hop aroma that comes from a mix of several Pacific Northwest hop varieties. We also recently stepped into the dark realm of “black IPA” with Wookey Jack, our Black Rye IPA. Wookey blends earthy rye with a touch of roasted malt flavor and citrus, stone fruit, and tropical flavors from healthy doses of citra and amarillo hops used in both the boil and dry hop.
I personally tend to be what you could call an “IPA purist” in that I like my IPAs pale, dry, and hoppy. I also tend to think that the name should only be applied to beers that fit the original style descriptors. I have come around a bit to black IPA though. Whatever you want to call these dark IPAs, they sure can taste amazing if done right (which we have, thank you very much). Beyond that, session IPA, rye IPA, Belgian IPA, white IPA, and now even red IPA are gaining popularity. These beers might not strictly please the purest in me, but I’ve certainly had examples from each that I have very much enjoyed, and I hope brewers continue to explore the hoppier side of brewing.
IPA is one of my favorite beers to drink with food because it goes particularly well with many of my favorite foods. Spicy tacos and other Mexican dishes, spicy Thai and Indian curries, and spicy Cajun dishes all go great with IPA, as the fruity and floral hop flavors meld with the spices in the food, and the heat and robust flavor of the food stand up to the bitterness of the hops. Even pasta dishes with tomato-based sauces are a great pairing as the hops cut the acidity of the tomato and the richness of melted cheese in something like lasagna. Along the same lines, pizza is always a win. For dessert, try carrot cake with a rye IPA and you can thank me later.
While I won’t be shy about encouraging the consumption of one of our IPAs for IPAday, IPA is a style best consumed as fresh as possible, so I also absolutely encourage you to get out and drink a local IPA on tap at your local brewpub or beer bar. I’ll be raising a Union Jack and saluting all the other hop heads out there.