What exactly is an IPA?

The history of the IPA is an enigma. Here the writer Adrian Tierney-Jones untangles some of the information to discover what makes a beer an IPA

Here is an IPA, golden and brazen in the glass, sun-ripening wafts of mango, lychee and orange swirling out into the open air, summoning up images of glowing summer days by ozone-rich Pacific shores, pleading to be drank. And that is what you do, whether it’s a sip, a gulp or a glug – and now there’s more tropical fruit, though it’s as if the fruit have grown up, developed muscles, after taking those Charles Atlas course. There’s also a riptide of bitterness and dryness and sweetness, a revolution in the mouth, a resolution made to drink more.


Here is another IPA, darker in its sense of gold, bruised perhaps, a creamy egg-white colour of foam signalling its invitation to the drinker. The bright tropical

What exactly is an IPA?

The history of the IPA is an enigma. Here the writer Adrian Tierney-Jones untangles some of the information to discover what makes a beer an IPA

Here is an IPA, golden and brazen in the glass, sun-ripening wafts of mango, lychee and orange swirling out into the open air, summoning up images of glowing summer days by ozone-rich Pacific shores, pleading to be drank. And that is what you do, whether it’s a sip, a gulp or a glug – and now there’s more tropical fruit, though it’s as if the fruit have grown up, developed muscles, after taking those Charles Atlas course. There’s also a riptide of bitterness and dryness and sweetness, a revolution in the mouth, a resolution made to drink more.


Here is another IPA, darker in its sense of gold, bruised perhaps, a creamy egg-white colour of foam signalling its invitation to the drinker. The bright tropical aloha of the previous beer has been replaced by a punchiness of oranginess, not the orange in the breakfast bowl though or the orange in a carton after a game of squash, but a deeper, dirtier orange, an orange that transforms itself into a sensual memory of marmalade or even the kind of juicy liqueur taken at the end of a good meal. There’s also a tapestry of grain upon which are stitched the deep colours of the hops, before it finishes big and bitter with a Sahara-like dryness.


Broadly speaking, I was describing an American-style IPA in the first paragraph, while the second was an attempt to conjure up a British one. Of course, I could have also tried writing about a Belgian IPA, a Black IPA (or my preference, Dark India Ale), a Rye (or Red) IPA, a White IPA (another word for a Belgian IPA perhaps?), a Session IPA, a Tart IPA, a barrel-aged IPA, a Double, Imperial or Triple IPA and the most infantile mutation of all, Fruit IPA. Meanwhile, someone somewhere is probably working on a non-alcoholic IPA or/and a Soda IPA. You have to wonder: is there such a thing as an IPA anymore, or is it all a dream?

For both new and established brewers the IPA has become the default beer style to have within their portfolio. It is the most popular beer style to be made and drank within the confines of the craft beer world (whatever way you want to interpret that), in the UK and the USA; in fact, go to any country where craft brewing is gaining a foothold and you will find most breweries and their mother making an IPA. Hey, I’m in Shanghai, so I’ll have a Boxing Cat’s TKO IPA; now I’m in the southern Brazil city of Blumenau and it’s an IPA (American style naturally) from Bierworld that I want to get my hands on.

 

"You have to wonder: is there such a thing as an IPA anymore, or is it all a dream?"


Whether you think it’s a gimmicky state of affairs or proof of how vital and exciting beer has become, it’s an amazing turn around of events for a beer style that 30 years ago in the UK was represented by weak pale ales from family breweries (a hangover from the puny beers brewed after World War I) and the occasional stronger vision of Burton’s White Shield (complete with instructions on how to be properly poured). It is a matter of great joy that this masterly beer style, with its roots in the 19th century, has survived and thrived.


On the other hand, let’s look at its emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries and see if we can get any clarity. According to Martyn Cornell in Amber, Gold & Black, the beer that would eventually become IPA was a ‘pale, well-hopped autumn-brewed stock bitter beer, popular with the eighteenth-century landed classes, who brewed it themselves on their country estates and kept it as ‘stock’ beer was meant to be kept, for a year to two years to mature.’


This was the kind of beer that Hodgson’s brewery in London sent to India, a kind of beer that through the rigour of the journey was a sensation when it arrived. This was in the late 1700s but in the next century for one reason or another Burton became the centre of IPA and the beer began its passage through the Victorian age, relatively strong and hoppy and a favourite with beer drinkers happy to pass on the porter. During and after World War I, the strengths of beer plummeted including IPA and that was the situation until the 1970s and 1980s. The message: IPA has not always remained the same.


So where does that leave IPA now, especially in all its various guises? For a start, I believe that brewers should know their beer styles; after all, whatever image they project (tattoos, crazy graphics, rock star sensibilities) they are still a business that has to sell their beers to drinkers who are growing in knowledge and confidence about what they like. As a regular judge at beer competitions both in the UK and Europe, it’s quite common to utter the words ‘this is an IPA?’ when it comes to the relevant category.

 

"There's a Belgian IPA, a Black IPA, a Rye IPA, a Session IPA, Imperial IPA, Tart IPA..."

 

On the other hand, one can be too po-faced about a style; one can be too rigorous in the definition. After all, beer styles change through time, they are fluid and ripe for mutation. New hop and barley varieties keep emerging on the market and the current state of British brewing with its sense of adventure means that brewers cannot stop themselves from experimenting and if that means a new beer style, a mutation or even a beer without a style home so be it. The excitement that surrounds beer at the moment also means that a lot of drinkers constantly crave something new from their favourites, which is another driver in this sense of mutation or innovation.


So there’s a lot to ponder on when it comes to IPA. You can be a purist and demand Victorian-style discipline or a post-modernist and say anything goes. I’m a woolly centrist and the only thing I would demand from any brewer about to unleash their IPA on the world is: learn your beer style, learn what an American (both west and east coast) IPA is and what an English one is. Learn how to brew it, get people to drink it and love it. Then you can go mad (though do please avoid the fruit). After all, Tracy Emin probably got a GCSE in art before messing up her bed and putting it on display.

 

Adrian Tierney-Jones is an award-winning freelance journalist, author and speaker writing and talking about beer, pubs, food and travel. Books include the upcoming anthology Beer, In So Many Words, Great British Pubs, 1001 Beers To Try Before You Die and Britain’s Beer Revolution (with Roger Protz). Contributor to The Oxford Companion to Beer and World Beer. Head of Judges for the World Beer Awards and also ends up on various juries in Italy and Belgium.



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THREE TO TRY

Stone Berlin / IPA / 6.9%

Stone IPA is a golden beauty that explodes with citrusy, piney hop flavors and aromas, all perfectly balanced by a subtle malt character. This crisp, extra hoppy brew is hugely refreshing on a hot day, but will always deliver no matter when you choose to drink it.

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Magic Rock / Cannonball / 7.4%

Big on hops and big on flavour, the Cannonball IPA is one of Magic Rock Brewing's flagship beers and has certainly put Huddersfield on the beery map. New-world hops impart big notes of pine, citrus fruits and perhaps even grass whilst its big bitterness cuts through the sweet flavours like a hot knife.

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Sierra Nevada / Torpedo / 7.2%

Sierra Nevada's regular hop bomb and the first to use their dry-hopping "Hop Torpedo" – essentially a wind funnel for the fermenting beer – which imbues a huge hoppy aroma without the associated bitterness leaving a lush citrus and pine resin flavour to come through.

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