Style Profile: The true story behind English IPA

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

Sometime in the early 19th century, the London brewer George Hodgson solved a problem that English brewers had been struggling with for some time. Pale ales shipped to India were regularly spoiling during the five-month voyage across the equator, resulting in their being dumped in the Bay of Calcutta upon arrival. Hodgson realized that both alcohol and hops were preservatives. He brewed a strong, highly-hopped beer that survived the voyage. India pale ale was born.

This tale of IPA’s invention has been oft repeated. The problem is that it’s not true. English brewers had been successfully shipping beer to the subcontinent and other parts of the world for at least 100 years before Hodgson’s Bow Brewery even opened. In addition to pale ale, advertisements from the day show porter and even low-alcohol small beer being enjoyed by thirsty ex-pats. If those beers arrived safely, it’s a safe bet that pale ale did as well.

Since the introduction of hops to the British Isles in the early 1500s, the English had been brewing strong, hopped-up, pale beers that were intended for long storage—sometimes for many years—before being consumed. Brewed at the beginning and end of the brewing season, they were called March and October beers. Evidence suggests that these may have been the pale ales that were shipped to India. Heat and motion during the voyage roused the yeast back into suspension causing additional fermentation. The result was a dry, well-attenuated beer that emphasized hop character.

This tale of IPA’s invention has been oft repeated. The problem is that it’s not true.

The label India pale ale wasn’t applied until later in the century when returning expatriates created demand for similar beers in Britain. Brewers began creating recipes that mimicked the character of those beers, without the need for a five-month sea voyage and extended aging. In advertising they called these beers “pale ale as prepared for India.” And so, India pale ale was born.

English-style IPA isn’t the über-hopped brew that we in this country have come to associate with India pale ale. It would also be a mistake to assume very high alcohol: strong beer in the English context is anything over five percent. While still hop forward, English IPA is a balanced brew that gives play to all the ingredients of beer. Malt, hops, yeast, and even water each get a chance to shine.

The aromatic profile is a balanced blend of earthy, herbal, and fruity hops with toffee and biscuit malt. Hop character can be moderate to high, but should never overpower the malt. English yeasts lend additional fruity overtones. In combination with the hops, these are often reminiscent of orange marmalade.

The flavor follows the aroma. Hop flavors can be medium to high with floral, grassy, herbal, earthy, and fruity notes. The intense grapefruit flavor of American hops is not the norm. Bitterness can be medium to assertive, but never reaches the level of American IPAs. Malt provides ample support, bringing complex layers of toffee, caramel, and biscuit. Fermentation-derived fruitiness rounds out the profile. A high-sulfate water like that found in Burton on Trent will deliver a distinctive minerally taste and sharp bitterness. The BJCP lists English IPA as 5-7.5% alcohol with 40-60 IBUs.

Related Post: The Taste Test: Blind-tasting 53 Minnesota IPAs

Meantime’s India Pale Ale is perhaps the best example available in Minnesota. Another one from across the pond is Worthington’s White Shield, the only one to be brewed continuously since the 19th-century. Samuel Smith’s India Ale is also well worth a taste. Locally, you can check out Summit IPA, my personal favorite beer from Summit. Other American-brewed examples are Goose Island IPA and Brooklyn East India Pale Ale.

As one might expect, English India pale ale is great with Indian food. The fruity, floral, earthy, and herbal flavors are a perfect match for Indian spices like coriander, cumin, and tamarind. The moderate bitterness provides a more moderate amplification of the heat than the sharper American version. It won’t set your head on fire. The if-it-grows-together-it-goes-together mantra also applies. Try an English IPA with aged cheddar or Stilton cheese. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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