Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
April 3, 2018 - What’s with all these IPAs?
In the world of craft brewing, there has been this cult-like obsession with “IPAs”. Over the last decade, the style has been dominated by “hop bombs”, intensely hoppy, aromatic and bitter, they were the antithesis of the thin, bland beers of big beer conglomerates. But they also turned off a segment of would-be beer drinkers who associated “craft beer” with “hoppy beer”. In their minds, hoppy equaled bitter, and the “I hate IPA” crowd kept their distance from the craft beer movement. For those of you still standing on the sidelines, I’m here to suggest that you don’t hate IPAs, you just think you do.
Standing behind the bar at Saltbox, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had customers come in for the first time and ask me what they should drink by starting with a statement: “I don’t like hoppy beer”. When Saltbox first developed its beer menu back in September 2016, they intentionally brewed beer with a mild level of hop bitterness. This was a conscious effort to brew to local customers’ taste, rather than adhere to strict style guidelines or dive into the highly competitive market targeting “hop heads” who seek out something that scorches the palate with bitterness. But here we are in 2018, and bitter is no longer better. In fact, the IPA as a beer style has never been more diverse or more flavourful.
But let’s take a look back at the long journey the IPA has travelled from its original debut in England back in the 18th century. “English IPA” is actually a “retronym” - a term that’s been modified to distinguish it from something similar that was invented after it. English IPA was just “IPA” until the American IPA came into being. So let’s start with the original invention to see its progression.
English Indian Pale Ales (IPAs) were originally brewed in England to be sold to British colonists and soldiers in Calcutta, India in the late 1700’s. The IPA was an evolution of the strong, dry English pale ale brewed in Burton-on-Trent, but with an increased level of hops added to each barrel of finished beer. The hop’s preservative qualities helped to safeguard it on its long ocean voyage to the warmer climes of India. It arrived in Calcutta clear, strong, and bitter, with a big resinous hop aroma. It was primarily consumed in India and the Caribbean until 1827, when a ship bound for India wrecked in the Irish Sea and some of the ship’s hogsheads of beer were recovered. The hogsheads were sold at auction in Liverpool, and soon people throughout England were clamouring for the new “India beer”. The IPA destined for India had finally arrived on the shores of its motherland.
The birth of the American IPA didn’t arrive until more than a century later. In the late 1970’s, early craft brewers in California and Washington state had two problems. The first was limited funds. They needed to produce and get beer to market quickly, and while lagers were the most popular style of beer at that time, they required long fermentation times. English ales on the other hand could be ready in 10 to 14 days, and thus became the beer of choice for craft brewers. This led to the second problem – access to ingredients. English ale ingredients were 6,000 miles away and expensive to import. So US craft brewers began to look to American and Canadian markets for their malt and hops. North American barley malts were cleaner and lighter than those in England. And the North American hops were more bitter and “wild” in aroma than their European counterparts. The US bred “C-variety” hops (Cascade, Chinook, Centennial) had spicey, piney, grapefruity aromas that became the basis for these new American IPAs, lending a brash, resinous bouquet and knife-like bitterness to these beers.
The assertively hop-flavoured, often abrasive “West Coast” IPAs became the prototype for the style for well-over a decade. Many west coast brewers took the “go big or go home” approach with these beers. The hops they used offered a dank, marijuana-like aroma and flavour and a resiny mouthfeel. A piney bitterness dominates at the front of these beers, with any sweetness of malt pushed to the back. The finish is often bone-dry. It’s no wonder that some newbies to the craft IPA scene were turned off by these painfully bitter palate crushers.
Within the last 5 years, there’s been an emerging antidote to the West Coast IPA. Some call it the “anti-IPA”. Originally brewed on the East Coast, it is most often referred to as the “Northeast IPA” or “New England IPA” (NEIPA). Some say it started in Vermont by a cult brewpub called the Alchemist. Their brew, “Heady Topper”, was a fruity, hazy IPA that quickly turned into a word-of-mouth sensation. Limited supply perpetuated demand for the beer, ultimately leading other brewers to create their own versions.
Often cloudy and golden in colour, the NEIPA is well-balanced with a more pronounced malt backbone than their West Coast counterparts. They have a juicy, fruit-forward hop aroma with a trace of hop bitterness balanced by malt sweetness. Think more tropical flavours, like mango, pineapple and peach, with a hint of citrus in the background. The NEIPA-style uses a lot of dry hopping – a process where the brewer adds a lot of hops during the secondary fermentation to intensify the hop aroma without significantly increasing beer bitterness. This aggressive dry-hopping often results in a beer that is hazy. The use of high protein grains, like wheat and oats in addition to barley, also adds to the haze and contributes a creamier mouthfeel. The hazy, juicy, creamy, barely-bitter NEIPA became a real crowd pleaser and has quickly outgrown its East Coast birthplace. You can now find this style being brewed throughout the US and Canada.
Today, there are over 120 varieties of hops. While some are used for bittering to offset malt sweetness, the majority are used to offer up unique aromas and flavours. Brewers can choose from tropical and citrusy to herbal to earthy, with countless flavors in between. The point is, there is now a broader spectrum of IPAs bursting with aromas and flavours that may surprise you.
Saltbox will be experimenting with its own version of an NEIPA in the coming months, and has already released its “Make and Break Full Throttle” Double IPA with a bolder display of hops than its other signature beers. There’s even talk of a collaboratively brewed Belgian IPA. So, if you haven’t tried an IPA in a while, I’d suggest you re-visit it. The growing diversity of this style will lead you down a very pleasant road of discovery.