INDIA PALE ALE – THE PRINCE OF BEERS

Here at Aleheads, we try to keep an open mind and discuss a wide range of styles that appeal to a variety of tastes.  Some of us lean toward the darker (Color, not taste) end of the spectrum with the likes of Imperial Stouts, Belgian Dubbels, and Porters.  Others look on the lighter side of life with Pilsners, Wheat Beers, and the ubiquitous Orange Mango LemonAle that clearly appeals to both camps.  Whatever your fancy, you’re sure to find your counterpart in one of the Aleheads.  What brings us all together I believe is a love for one style that’s often regarded as THE American beer of today.  The style I’m referring to is the India Pale Ale. 

India Pale Ale, or IPA for short, is a subcategory of the larger class of beers known simply as Pale Ales.  The “Pale” in the name comes from the color and lightness of the malt, but also depicts the appearance of the resultant brew that can range from very light to amber in color.  When a lower temperature is used in the drying process, you’re left with a product that doesn’t have the roasted, toasty flavors that are present in other malts.  The base pale malt is generally where the similarities end between your standard Pale Ale and what most people look to for in an IPA.  You have to look at a bit of history to see where and why IPA’s came about.

Back before the English were pushed back to their own island to coexist with their flat mates Scotland and Wales, the Empire stretched to many distant lands including everyone’s favorite outsourcing capital – India.  The East India Trading Co. kicked things off nicely by planting thousands of merchant marines, officers, traders, and expats into an area that could only be survived by boozing it up (OK, that’s not part of history, but I just call it like I see it).  With many shops in areas like Calcutta and Bombay catering to the English crowds, it only seemed natural that the East India officers would take up a little venture in the field of suds.  Keep in mind, the Suez Canal didn’t open up until the second half of the nineteenth century, so the journey from the British Isles to India still had to go around the Cape of Good Hope and skirt up the coast of Africa to reach the final destination.  Long journey = Spoilage, so the Brits figured out that upping the original gravity and adding a heavy dose of hops provided enough alcohol and preservatives to keep the beer fresh.  What you’re left with is a beer that would have ranged between 6-10% ABV and have a hop profile that was more bitter and pungent that the Milds and Ordinary Bitters that would have been enjoyed back home.  In fact, the popularity of IPA’s grew so much that the domestic market started to enjoy as much growth as that of the markets abroad.  Today, IPA’s in Britain are a far cry from what they once were in the days of yore.  Taxation had a great deal to do with history since the more commodities that went into the kettle, the higher the price levied on your product.  In general, a British IPA will be more akin to the traditional definition of a Pale Ale with 4-5% ABV and a very mild hop presence.  Not a bad thing mind you, quite the contrary, but if you want to experience an IPA for yourself it’s time to head on back to the land of the free and the home of brave.

American IPA’s are almost a new category of Imperial Pale Ales, but in all honesty, the American version should be the standard and everything else should take on a new category.  Your typical IPA in the States will start out around 6% alcohol and provide enough hops and bitterness that it would still survive a journey around the world (Of course there’s a million other technologies that have come into play other than hops to ensure survival, but you get my point).  The hop varietals that are so prevalent in American brewing tend to have far different characteristics than what you would find in most British beers with their affinity for milder  hops like Fuggle, Golding, and Northern Brewer. American brewers like to pick hop varieties that lend more floral, citrus, and resiny characteristics like Cascade, Centennial, Galena, Chinook, and Willamette (Cousin to the Fuggle, but more amped up).  When someone says, “I don’t like hoppy beers”, you can be pretty sure that they had a run-in with an American IPA.  Keep in mind though, hops don’t make an IPA an IPA.  Take Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for example.  That’s a hoppy beer, but it’s not an IPA.  Make sense?  Well, here’s some more confusion to add in.

Fairly new to the American beer scene comes the Imperial IPA or Double IPA.  The style has been brewed in the past and many consider the first “Export” IPA’s that went over to India to be Imperial in origin.  Similar to the Imperial tag on the Imperial Stout, the Imperial  IPA will be an even hoppier, higher gravity Pale Ale than that of your every day IPA.  Alcohol levels tend to run in the 8-12% range with IBU’s (International Bittering Units – A measurement of hop presence) running from probably 70 to well over 100.  For reference sake again, we’ll mention that Sierra Pale Ale has 37 IBU’s and is still considered by most to have a strong hop presence.  As Brother Barley likes to say, Imperial IPA’s take your regular IPA and turns it up to eleven.  The best example of the progression from an every day IPA to Imperial/Double is with Dogfish Head.  They have their 60 Minute IPA at 60 IBU’s and 6% ABV.  Then they give you their 90 Minute IPA (Which is actually a Double IPA) that gives you 90 IBU’s and 9% alcohol.  Then, just because they’re Dogfish Head and can do anything with beer, they bring you their 120 Minute IPA that of course has 120 IBU’s and weighs in at a hefty 18% ABV.  The 120 is certainly an Imperial IPA of the highest order and is so hoppy and alcoholic that it’s difficult to pick up the hops and alcohol on it.  I know that doesn’t make sense, but trust me on this one.  If you want to have your tongue scorched a bit but want some flavor as well, do your self a favor and pick up a 4-pack of their 90 Minute IPA.  Once you have it, you’ll know the difference between Imperial/Double and your standard IPA offering.

I think that’s enough rambling on what is by far and away my favorite beer style on the planet.  According to a poll we posted on Aleheads a couple weeks ago, I’m not alone with my opinion.  Check out some of my favorite examples below and let us all know what your most beloved IPA’s are.

British (Style) IPA

  • Samuel Smith’s India Ale
  • Berkshire Brewing Lost Sailor IPA
  • Brooklyn East India Pale Ale

American IPA

  • Founders Centennial IPA (My all-time favorite IPA, quite possibly my favorite beer ever)
  • Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale & Torpedo Extra IPA
  • Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA
  • Boulder Beer Mojo IPA
  • Victory Hop Devil
  • Victory Yakima Twilight (See my tasting notes here)
  • AleSmith IPA (See my tasting notes here)

Imperial / Double IPA

  • Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA
  • Victory Hop Wallop
  • Oskar Blues Gordon Ale
  • Bell’s HopSlam Ale
  • Avery Maharaja (See my tasting notes here)

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4 comments

  1. Sweeney · · Reply

    Dear Lord,

    Not a single Northwest IPA among your list? There are a dozen IPAs that are better than Racer and Viktory (though Dogfish Head is pretty damn good). I am a believer that IPAs are essentially the opus of a beer drinker’s career (although I also like many Belgian styles as an apertif). In anycase, the Northwest has piles of extraordinary IPAs superpassing Cali or the Northeast. I highly recommend a trip to the Northwest Craft brew festival in the summer.

    Sweeney

    Sweeney

  2. In the Doc’s defense, he spoke at length during the last Maltercation (which will be posted soon) about the superiority of West Coast hops and how the American IPA style is, essentially, a West Coast invention.

    But most West Coast micros tend to be fairly provincial and hard to come by in the Doc’s homeland of New England. You can only write about what you know.

    Having spent some time visiting Sweeney Todd on the Left Coast, I concur that while individual breweries in other parts of the country have IPAs just as good as the Pacific Northwest, you’re not going to find a better REGION to satisfy your hop-head cravings.

  3. Honestly, I would have loved to put some Pac NW IPA’s on the list, but like Brother Barley said I just haven’t had the pleasure of some of the finer brews. Ninkasi and Deschutes should be on any good beer list (As far as I know). I love Hair of the Dog too, but they’re a little lost in the shuffle when discussing my favorite IPA’s. I’m sure as hell not putting Rogue up there, not that anyone is trying to convince me otherwise.

    If that doesn’t suffice as an apology, just keep in mind that I spent about 45 seconds creating that list (At work, while on the phone with a client). And remember, the best way to make your point is to send me beer. Short of that feel free to post up a who’s who of Pac NW IPA’s so I can bang my head on my desk in fits of jealousy.

  4. […] more and nothing less.  If you need a bit of a refresher on IPA’s, feel free to check out my primer that I wrote a few months back.  And away we […]

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