The India Pale Ale (IPA) is surely the most famous style at the moment in the world of beer. Go to the market and you will find an abundance of India Pale Ales, Session IPA’s, Black IPA’s, Belgian IPA’s, Imperial IPA’s…to name a few. One might naturally ask why are IPA’s everywhere – could hops be addictive?
To really understand IPA’s, we should travel to the 18th century.
Welcome to the 18th century British India and to the trading attractiveness of the East. Here, powerful trading companies, like the East India Company (EIC), possess important commercial warehouses to trade commodities with the rest of the World, provisioning the colonial army in parallel. Back in the subcontinent, British settlers are looking for a refreshing taste of home and are everything but pleased with the stale, infected beer coming from the Mother Land. Taking at least six months to travel to India, and having to cross the equator twice, the Pales and Bitters of the day, with low alcohol and lightly hopped, did not stand a chance.
Back in London, close to the EIC’s docks, the ingenious Bow Brewery is establishing a new style of beer, with higher original gravity, intensely hopped and designed for maturation for at least one year. The owner, George Hodgson, has also come up with a business approach that granted extended credit to the beer purchasers, favouring his new beer over the big breweries product. Unexpectedly, this rough, highly attenuated beer matured remarkably well with the scorching heat and arduous journey of the supplying transcontinental ships, making this beer a tremendous success among its consumers in India. Hops preserving characteristics are well known, and the higher concentration of alpha acids made IPA’s fit for journey while mellowing.
From this moment on, other British breweries, such as Burton located ones, would start to replicate Hodgson’s successful style of pale ale, acquiring important business status over the years and condemning Bow Brewery to the oblivion. The India Pale Ale was born, soon migrating to the American continent by the hand of John Labatt. The hop addiction was starting.
The evolution of a style
Today, an IPA is tipically defined as a beer with around 6% of alcohol, 60 IBU’s, not necessarily pale and surely with a lot of different shapes. If the classic English style may be somehow more balanced, American IPA’s are their eccentric brother, ‘showcasing modern American or New World hop varieties (…), with a clean fermentation profile, dry finish, and clean, supporting malt, allowing a creative range of hop character to shine through. (BJCP, 2015). The popularity of IPA’s brought them to the forefront of brewing innovation, with Witbiers, Red Ales or Sour Beers being adapted to the IPA profile and pleasing the craving of beer connoisseurs; new styles of IPA are constantly being designed, such as the New England Indian Pale Ale (NEIPA) or the Brut IPA.
India Pale Ale is the perfect example of how a beer co-evolves over time and how a specific style becomes a hit. The hop phenomenon is worldwide, not only in the USA or the United Kingdom, but also in Spain. When I started brewing, in Catalonia, only one of the fellow breweries was making IPA’s; now practically all the breweries of Catalonia and Spain are brewing IPA’s and it surely is the more successful style. You may not like the craft IPA from the local brewery, but the hops assertive bitterness, spectacular aromas and surprising flavours will provide an untedious experience, and you are likely to come back for more.