In the previous issue, we discussed oatmeal stouts and how that style has split into three sub-styles comprising the group. This type of style splitting has become commonplace. As the beer market becomes more and more international, styles are no longer bound to their country of origin.
This trend originated from within the craft brewing movement, as brewers strove to distinguish themselves from any and all competitors by brewing styles not normally seen before in their areas. What strengthens this movement is a central fact: open-minded craftbrew drinkers tend to seek out unique, well-brewed beers and shun the bog-standard ones.
America leads the way with a full deck of beer styles available in the marketplace. Some brewers specialize in duplicating British, Belgian and German styles right down to using the exact hops, malts and yeasts. Others seek to put an American touch to these styles, using North American-grown ingredients, and altering the original recipes–thus creating entirely new styles.
British craft brewers are now following in their Yankee cousins’ footsteps. A contributor to this is the free flow of information among brewers in different countries. Beer festivals in America and Britain attract brewers from both countries and provide a place where they are free to talk shop; and there’s always the internet. It is interesting to note British brewers who borrow back American interpretations of their own original styles.
A debate is simmering about the need for all of these styles. Some argue there’s no need, it’s too confusing, or similar nonsense. To the contrary, it is human nature to name and categorize everything. Every variant of an item has its own distinct description and name. To transfer the argument to cars: a green 1964 240 cubic-inch straight-six automatic Ford Mustang is not the same as a blue 1970 428 cubic-inch V-8 four-speed manual Ford Mustang or a white 2000 4.6 liter five-speed manual convertible Ford Mustang. Yes, they are all Ford Mustangs, but any one claiming them to be the same vehicle is a dimwit. It’s people like that what cause unrest.
Right. India pale ales, commonly called IPAs, are a group with great pedigree and historic roots. By now, most beer lovers have heard about how traditional IPAs were brewed strong and extremely hoppy to survive long voyages to distant, God-forsaken heathen lands of the British Empire (and a rather large former colony), so let’s skip the rest of the history lesson and dive straight into the deep end.
IBU = International Bittering Units
The last two digits of a beer’s original gravity (OG) figure and its alcohol by volume (ABV) figure closely correlate; i.e., a 1070 OG beer normally has an alcohol content of 7.0 percent. That’s why most people now use this British method, as it is easy to comprehend, unlike the government’s system of stating alcohol content by weight.
The first IPAs were brewed to 1070-90 OG, 7.0-9.0 ABV, with bitterness reaching 150 IBUs, a phenomenal figure when one considers that the bitterness in modern British IPAs tops out at about 30 IBUs. Strong beer for strong-willed men. Empire building was not a task assigned to sissies.
Research indicates that in the 1830s the heaviest IPAs shipped from Burton had an OG of 1070 and an ABV of about 7.0 percent. In the 1880s, Simmonds of Reading was shipping a 1080 OG, 8.0 percent ABV IPA, whilst Youngers marketed an Imperial ale (read IPA) at 1080 OG. Ushers shipped a 1060 IPA in 1885, when, it appears, the brewers first started lifting off the throttle a bit. Still, those are staggering numbers by today’s standards: 1036-55 OG, 20-42 IBUs. Not one modern British-brewed IPA comes close to these figures. A sad state of affairs.
Fuggle and Kent Golding hops would have been used almost exclusively, both in copper and as dry hops in the cask to add extra flavor and aroma.
The peak of the export trade for IPAs was the 1880s. By then, faster sailing ships and steamers considerably shortened sailing time from Britain to distant parts of the Empire. This allowed brewers to reduce the strength and the bitterness of their IPAs. Quite a fall in 100 years, but still higher and darker than today’s standards.
North American: Craftbrewed
The closest thing to traditional British IPAs can now be found in North America. Good for Yanks, bad for Brits. North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early specification than do British brewers who, as a group, do not. That IPAs now thoroughly dominate this style has been acknowledged, in writing and in personal conversations, by practically every British beer judge, writer, and others thought expert in the field.
In a nutshell, the IPAs’ sole reason for existence is that they are big beers. By that I mean they should be strong alcoholically, they should be extremely hop-bitter, and they should be fairly full bodied. Minus these elements, they are nothing more than ordinary bitters or pale ale.
North American IPAs start where modern British IPAs (see below) end: 5.5 percent ABV, 1055-90 OG, 40 to 60 IBUs. Many have alcohol content from the middle to the upper end of the range.
Many North American brewers tend to use Pacific Northwest hops and domestically grown grains instead of imported ingredients. These impart different taste characteristics to the beer, as each variety of hops and malt produces different results. Within North America, northwestern brewers tend to produce beers at higher hop bittering rates than do eastern brewers. It’s a regional preference and distinction.
I intentionally placed this style last to put it in its place psychologically―relegate it to second-division status. Modern British IPAs aren’t in the same league as traditional IPAs and North American craftbrewed IPAs in both alcohol content and character. And, since traditional British IPAs have gone the way of the British Empire, this really comes down to a comparison between North American and British IPAs. In this mismatched tilt, North America wins with one hand tied behind its back.
An examination of 14 British cask-conditioned IPAs reveals 3.5 to 5.5 percent ABV, 1036-55 OG, 20 to 42 IBUs, and 15 to 29 EBU units of color.
Give me a break–3.5 percent ABV IPAs? That doesn’t even qualify as a bog-standard bitter. It’s enough to make a grown man cry–or scream. Have those brewers gone mad? Either they are ignorant of what an IPA really is, or their trying to pull a fast one on consumers. I think it’s getting near time to call in government investigators, as labeling a 3.5 percent ale an IPA crosses the line of consumer fraud. Slapping on a label with the words IPA on it does not make the beer an IPA.
Even the color has considerably lightened in many brands in this style group. In some instances, the beer is nearly as light as blonde or golden ales. Please, will the Goddess of Beer throw some lightning bolts their way? And hurry.
But, and this is a big but, I am not saying that modern British IPAs taste awful. In fact, I didn’t once mention their taste. Yet.
Most have excellent aroma and taste characteristics, as tends to be the case with well-brewed British ales. Unfortunately, the ones at the lower end of the scale taste just like a corresponding bitter or pale ale, with just a bit more hop bitterness added to distinguish them from their siblings. Certainly not enough difference to pay a premium price, or even work up much excitement. I would not say no to a British IPA, but if it’s the best I want, I’ll reach for an American brand in a snap.
This next bit applies to all IPA styles. They should be brewed with “Burtonized” water, meaning water that is similar to the water at Burton-upon-Trent, where IPAs were chiefly brewed. This water should be naturally very hard with high mineral content or treated at the brewery to make it so. This makes for a superior IPA that is crisp and dry on the palate. Aromatic hop rates should be high, so hop aromas should be strong to very strong, a hop-head’s dream come true, and bitterness should be intense on the palate. Body should be medium, with plenty of malt to balance the intense hop bitterness. Fruity ester notes should be moderate to very strong in both aroma and palate, and alcoholic warming should be evident at the back of the mouth.
Finally, is there any reason to hope that British brewers will strengthen their IPAs to traditional levels? No, none whatsoever. That’s wishful thinking. With the current prevalent thinking in Britain being that a 5.0 percent ABV beer is a “strong” beer, the odds for the reintroduction of 6.0 to 9.0 percent ABV IPAs are long indeed. But three cheers for American brewers who carry the IPA banner proudly in the van.
Fullers IPAABV: 4.8
Tasting Notes: From the mid-range, alcoholically, of the modern English IPA style comes this example from London. Deep gold-colored, with a big, thick ecru-colored head of long duration; a clean nose; full-bodied by any measure, in keeping with its house style; moderate mellow hops over earthy notes on the nose. Quite a bit of malt comes through in the nose. I did expect more hops, in keeping with its heritage. Excellent condition with low to moderate carbonation, as one would expect of an English ale. Initial hops, with solid malt beneath on the palate, the hop maintains dominance; long, hoppy finish with residual malt sweetness. A stunning ale with remarkable body and character; not nearly as huge as a traditional IPA, but an excellent modern one. A North American IPA lover would wish for more hops in the nose and palate.
Wild Goose IPAABV: 5.5
Tasting Notes: An American emulation (with a touch more alcohol) of the modern English style, rather than a North American IPA. Deep gold with some haziness; ecru-colored head of long duration; clean nose; medium-bodied; carbonation rate appropriate for an English ale; could stand a more pronounced hop note in the nose, mellow hops over nice malt sweetness on the palate; lacks the aggressive hop bitterness one expects in an IPA; long, fine hop finish, with no spikes; lovely, but underwhelming bitterness. This beer takes a conservative approach to the style, but it is delicious nonetheless.
Full Sail IPAABV: 6.5
Tasting Notes: A true, faultless North American IPA. Lovely deep gold colour; nearly brilliant; big ecru-colored head of long, lacy duration; clean nose; very full-bodied, a middle-linebacker; perfect ale carbonation and conditioning; big early hop attack that fights off a strong malt challenge; no spikes with everything as it should be on the palate and in the finish; alcoholic warming evident at the back of the throat. A stunning example of the style; balanced throughout. The brewer blasted an Al MacInnis slapshot from the blue line and scored to the goalie’s glove-side. Perfect.
Rogue Imperial IPAABV: 8
Tasting Notes: This is a rare example of a traditional English IPA. You can’t get much closer. Orangy-gold with yeast-haze (for effect, I poured it in); huge ecru head of long duration; clean but yeasty aroma (intentional); a good, full, sustaining body--I’ve had thinner stouts. Perfectly conditioned and carbonated for the style; lovely, aggressive hop nose; a huge, immediate attack of hops on the palate, like drinking grapefruit juice straight from the fruit, with supporting malt body; a long, stunning hoppy bitter finish. This is a massive IPA by today’s standards, a legitimate throwback to IPAs brewed in the 1850s. Stupendous.
Rob Haiber is an international beer judge and style expert who very much admires brewers who put in the bottle what they put on the label.