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What is India Pale Ale?

India Pale Ale, or IPA as it’s commonly known, stands as a beacon in the craft beer movement, heralding complexity and boldness in flavor that has captivated beer enthusiasts worldwide. This guide will unravel the essence of IPA, its historical roots, its distinct characteristics, and the reason behind its enduring popularity.

The Historical Voyage of IPA

The story of India Pale Ale begins in the late 18th century, rooted in the British Empire’s colonial pursuits. The need arose for a beer that could endure the long sea journey from Britain to India without spoiling. Brewers discovered that by increasing the hops and alcohol content, the beer not only survived the trip but also improved in flavor. This robust, hoppy beer quickly became a favorite among British troops stationed in India, and thus, the IPA was born.

India Pale Ale

If necessity is the mother of invention, then India Pale Ale is one of its children. In the 1790s, India was a colony under British rule. Due to India’s warm weather, beer couldn’t be brewed locally and had to be shipped from England, a 6-month trip around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. After spending 6 months aboard a ship and suffering the heat of equatorial Africa, beer arrived in India flat, sour, and spoiled.

Since refrigeration hadn’t been invented yet, a way had to be found for beer to survive the trip to India. Enter George Hodgson of East London’s Bow Brewery. Back then, brewers knew hops acted as a sort of natural preservative and that alcohol also provided preservative qualities. So it occurred to Hodgson to take the pale ale favored by British troops and make some alterations.

First, he increased the hopping rate and the brew’s starting gravity. When the beer was fermented, he added more hops to the casks (a process known as dry hopping) and added priming sugar to help keep the yeast alive during the trip. The result upon arrival in India was a more alcoholic, bitter, sparkling beer with no evidence of spoilage. India Pale Ale was born!

Distinguishing Features of India Pale Ale

What sets IPA apart is its significant hop character – both in aroma and taste. IPAs are known for their strong floral, fruity, or citrusy notes, which come from the variety of hops used in brewing.

A well-crafted IPA should be well balanced with hop bitterness playing off against malt and a crisp, almost mineral finish. Pour the beer into a glass, and you’ll notice a color ranging from light copper to deep amber. The aroma should be pleasantly hoppy, with a floral, woody, or even spicy nose. Remember, we’re talking about India Pale Ale, not the American model, which has a more floral, citrussy hops profile.

When you taste it, IPA should have an assertive, not overpowering bitterness. As with the aroma, the bitterness should be spicy or woody. The malt sweetness should be present enough to balance the bitterness and might add a bready, biscuity quality. Perhaps there might be hints of caramel or toffee. The beer should have a clean, almost mineral finish. As for alcohol content, most IPAs clock in between 5.5 and 7 percent alcohol by volume.

I love IPA. The complexity and balance of a well-made IPA make it one of my favorite beers. If you have a well-stocked liquor store nearby, you should find a good example of the style easily enough. One of my favorites is Young’s London Ale. Even though it doesn’t advertise itself as one, it does qualify as an IPA. Old Speckled Hen and Wells, also from England, also make great IPAs. From North America, I’ve always been fond of Brooklyn Brewing’s East India Pale Ale and Hop Head from Nelson Brewing and Bridgeport IPA.

If you have a hard time deciding between the choices offered, stop by your local brewpub or microbrewery. Brewers are familiar with beer styles and don’t mind offering their opinions. Especially if it helps promote their product. If you can’t find a nearby brewpub, ask your local homebrew club or email one from a nearby town. Homebrew enthusiasts are always ready to help other beer enthusiasts find their way.

The Evolution of IPA

From its traditional English roots, the IPA has evolved and branched into several sub-styles, primarily influenced by American craft brewers. The American IPA is known for its bold hop flavors, often showcasing the unique characteristics of American hops with piney, resinous, or tropical fruit notes. There’s also the Double or Imperial IPA, characterized by even higher alcohol content and an explosive hop flavor, catering to those seeking an intense hop experience.

The IPA’s adaptability has led to the creation of styles like the Session IPA, offering the hop-forward flavor profile of traditional IPAs but at a lower alcohol content, making it more suitable for prolonged drinking sessions. Then there’s the New England IPA (NEIPA), which has gained popularity for its hazy appearance, juicy and fruity hop profile, and smoother bitterness.

Why IPA Continues to Reign

The enduring appeal of IPA lies in its versatility and the broad canvas it offers to brewers. The variety of hops available allows for endless experimentation, resulting in a wide array of flavors and aromas. This diversity means there’s an IPA out there for nearly every palate, from those who prefer a bitter punch to those who lean towards a fruity or floral profile.

Furthermore, the IPA’s bold flavors make it an excellent companion for food pairing. Its strong hop character can complement spicy dishes, while its citrusy notes can enhance the flavors of grilled meats and seafood. The complexity of IPAs also makes them a favorite among home brewers, who relish the challenge and creativity involved in crafting a unique version of this iconic style.

India Pale Ale is more than just a beer; it’s a symbol of innovation and experimentation in the world of brewing. Its rich history, diverse sub-styles, and adaptability have cemented its place as a favorite among beer lovers. Whether you’re new to the world of craft beer or a seasoned aficionado, exploring the multifaceted world of IPA is a journey of taste that promises new discoveries with every sip. As the craft beer movement continues to flourish, the IPA’s legacy as a pioneer of flavor and boldness is sure to endure, inviting more to discover its unique appeal and contribute to its ongoing evolution.

John Crafton

Written by

John Crafton

John Crafton, a seasoned beer reviewer with a decade's experience, is celebrated for his refined taste and extensive knowledge of brewing. His passion for craft beer has led him across the globe, tasting and reviewing a diverse array of brews. John's writing simplifies the complex beer world, catering to both newcomers and connoisseurs.