Beyond the Pale by Jim Anderson

No doubt about it, today’s trendy beer is India Pale Ale, and it seems that every brewer has to make one. A style of beer born of failure of traditional pale ale to reach Anglo-Indian colonists in drinkable condition, the robust character of IPA was a result of basically three elements: long attenuation time, large hop quantities and high alcohol level. The first two elements were devised as a means of preventing the beer from souring during its long ocean journey around Africa. The last one was to take advantage of a 5p-per-barrel excise tax drawback (plus ça change . . .).
This tweaking of the failed pale ale formula is credited to the fellow who first turned the new export ale into big bucks, John Hodgson of London, and it is his surviving recipe that is the basis for most modern IPAs.
You see, IPA gradually fell from the drinker’s grace and eventually drifted away after it was introduced to the domestic British market, probably in the same dumbed-down fashion as Indian cuisine was. I say probably, because — unlike authentic Indian cuisine — there are no surviving examples of the IPA that was being drunk at the time of its export to India. As soon as IPA became extinct, we had very little frame of reference for its flavour.
So, in order to re-construct IPA, the modern brewer must look back at the Hodgson recipe and scattered memoranda. We know the recipe called for extended attenuation of a pale ale, which certainly would have made for a drier-tasting and more-stable beer because of the lower levels of unfermented sugars. The tax break would have made for a strong beer, above 6%ABV. So far, our re-constructed IPA is a dry, strong top-fermented, copper-coloured beer. (“Pale” at that time meant “as opposed to dark porter,” not “like Michael Jackson’s target complexion.”) We also know that the recipe called for more hops, especially those added to the ale just before the cask is sealed. This technique is known as “dry hopping,” and results in a beer that is initially sharp with hop bitterness as well as protected for a time from spoilage by the humulon content of the hops, registering above 40IBU (International Bitterness Units).
But the beer that left the UK was not the beer that arrived in India. What was IPA like when it actually reached the lips of the colonial punter? That’s the stuff of intense speculation among exciting people like me who love to debate things like that. “Surely the months spent in oak casks under warm, rollicking conditions would have influenced the beer’s flavour and colour,” I preach to a pub full of stifled yawns and closely-examined fingernails. “The beer would most likely have darkened a bit and mellowed as the hops lost their bitterness with age,” enthusiastically replies the only other person among our group who hasn’t fallen asleep.
So which is it for today’s IPA brewers? Do they try to give us an authentic, 19th-Century Indian drinking experience? Do they literally interpret Hodgson’s recipe in order to present the beer as it would have tasted as it left the brewery? Or do they simply pick and choose their favourite characteristics and end up with something that’s an IPA in name only?
In America, my generation’s first exposure to IPA would have been through Ballantine India Pale Ale in the 70s. This quirky beer was the product of a famous brewery started by a Scot named Peter Ballantine, and has been elevated to god-like status among Beer Geeks in the USA. Within the curious, short green bottle lay an amber, bitter ale of 7% whose aroma was pungent with the earthy perfume of wood aging. Later, we’d begin to see bottles of Bass Ale with the letters, “IPA” in fine print on the label, but this was of a much different and familiar character – as clean and mechanical as Ballantine’s was rustic and natural.
As part of a general frenzy of interpreting classic British beer styles in the 80s, craft brewers on the American West Coast began to experiment with IPA formulas. These were more-or-less based on Hodgson’s recipe, albeit with modern, high-alpha hops and no wood aging. Anchor Liberty Ale is an enduring classic among those early efforts. Its sharp, citrus sting has become a signature among craft-brewed American-style IPAs from the Americas to Australasia to Scandinavia to the UK.
A few years later, the restless and experimental nature of brewers from that savage land resulted in more-extreme versions of IPA, such as Oregon’s Rogue I2PA (9.5%ABV, 75IBU). With due respect to the history of the style, these new beers were dubbed Imperial India Pale Ale, and have grown so popular that IIPA has become a legitimate style in beer competitions.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, things were going much in the opposite direction. Insipid beers like Greene King IPA (3.6%ABV and ~26IBU) and Caledonian Deuchars IPA (3.8% and ~30IBU) profited from their in-name-only connection to IPA whilst helping destroy it as an identifiable style by exhibiting virtually none of the classic characteristics of IPA. A bit like fastening a Bentley marque to the bonnet of a Fiat Punto – don’t be shocked when the movie star refuses to get in.
Yet, all is not lost — British microbrewed versions such as Thornbridge Jaipur IPA (5.9%ABV, ~45IBU) and Stringer’s IPA (5.5%ABV, ~45IBU) are fine efforts to return to the style’s origins, and only Britain’s fear of beer over 4.9% is keeping these beers from some serious trending.
But in an age in which deconstruction masquerades as creativity, IPA as a style has boiled down (requisite bad beer pun) to little more than a sound-bite of bitter, strong ale. So, it’s only natural, isn’t it, when Scottish Brew Dog and American Flying Dog breweries challenge one another to a competition to see who can brew the bitterest IPA without using hops — the one ingredient that defines IPA. After all, if you call a Punto an IPA, it must be an IPA, right? Jim Anderson is co-owner of The Anderson in Fortrose, and likes a few IBU with his ABV.

Category: Features
Tags: Beer, dram, jim anderson, SCOTLAND