Wednesday 9 September 2009

What the hell is an IPA?

I wrote this ages ago and have been tweaking it trying to work out if there’s any ‘story’ in it or if I’m just being pedantic and geeky. Reading Pete Brown’s Hops & Glory told me so much about IPA but it didn’t answer some of my specific thoughts about what IPA means to me right now (maybe that’s the next beer book – taking a massive, citrusy IPA on a rock band’s tour bus around the US to try and find out what IPA means to drinkers now?! Hops & Glory meets Almost Famous). Thankfully, my queries were partly confirmed in a post from Zak Avery last week, saying that IPA has become ‘a catch-all term for anything from a pale hoppy session ale to a profound, rasping hop-led assault on the senses’. It’s this that I’ve been trying to get to grips with.

We know the history of the IPA right? A pale ale brewed in England and transported to India, pale in colour and heartily hopped. The exact etymological difference between an IPA and a PA seems to simply be that the ‘I’ stands for India and that this ‘I’ has now come to mean more hops than a regular pale ale. But what does IPA really mean now?
If I see that a beer is an IPA then I generally expect that I’ll be getting something pale with a decent punch of bitterness in it, but the difference between some IPAs are incomparable. I’ve had some where hops barely seem to have dabbed their green leaves into the brews, while others have stripped my teeth. I’ve used the terms ‘old-school’ and ‘new-skool’ before in referring to IPAs and I think they work: the hops in the ‘old’ are English and earthy and spicy with berry fruits and grassy, herby, floral notes and a moderate bitterness (think White Shield, Meantime IPA), whereas the ‘new’ have got the citrus peel and pith, tropical fruits or the pine of super high-Alpha American hops (think Punk IPA, Stone IPA). They are very different. My feeling is that the essence of a new-skool IPA is very different to the essence of an old-school IPA: old-schoolers were brewed for purpose as much as it was for flavour; new-skool are brewed to smack you in the face with a citrus fist and then be wonderfully drinkable. One has history and the other is the in-your-face, hot young upstart.
There are so many IPAs in the market but what I want to know is: Has the term IPA evolved into something way different to what it began as or have the boundaries just been stretched to be all-encompassing and include sub-styles and off-shoots of what was once known as an IPA? Should the use of ‘points’ where an 'I.P.A.' is the old-school India Pale Ale while an 'IPA' denotes the new-skool? Is it even necessary to know that it’s an abbreviation? Does IPA have its own unique connotations that are separate from India Pale Ale now? New-skool IPAs have ABVs which generally range from 5.5-7% and their IBUs stretch anywhere from 40-100+). Then there are double and imperial IPAs with ABVs up to 20% and IBUs up to levels where the body thinks it might actually be killed by this bitter poison. Old-schoolers are anywhere from 4-7% (I’d argue that a lot of the sub-5%ers are not technically IPAs but are just using the term to stick a fashionable label on their beer, plus these sub-5%ers are modern incarnations which are probably not worthy of the name they give themselves) but you don’t get many English-style double IPAs (Halcyon is a rare and delicious exception and I want to say JJJ too but I think it's a bit of an old-school-new-skool mash-up), and why is this? Perhaps the earthy hop bitterness doesn’t do so well when it’s used to monster-up a beer, maybe you just don’t get the easy drinking quality that the US hops give. And maybe now’s the time to point out the new Belgian style IPAs too? A collusion of English, Belgian and American.
Let’s take an example: BrewDog. I count that they have eight IPAs. Punk IPA is their postmodern classic new skool style beer (nine if you count Punk Monk, which is Punk brewed with a Belgian yeast, and flipping fantastic it is too). Chaos Theory is 7.1%, copper coloured and hopped with the new-skool beau that is the Nelson Sauvin. Storm is an 8% IPA aged old-school style in new-skool Islay whisky casks. Atlantic IPA is an earthy 8% brew made from a 200-year old recipe and aged in oak at sea (old-school at its roots, albeit with a new-skool twist). Hardcore IPA is 9% and proper in-your-face hop bomb. Zephyr is a 12.5% IPA aged in a whisky barrel with fresh strawberries. A Black IPA is on its way soon (we won’t even get started on that one!). And finally, although not technically called an IPA by the brewery, How To Disappear Completely, a 3.5% pale ale/imperial mild with 198IBUs. They are IPAs but they are all vastly different. It doesn’t seem logical that an IPA is now just a pale and hoppy beer because that is such a generic way of describing it, plus not all that many are even all that pale (I won’t start on the colour scale).
Maybe it’s just a British reserve verses an American super-sizing. Maybe I’m trying to make something out of nothing. Maybe I’m just writing this to spark off some questions about style. Maybe there are no answers. Maybe that’s just how it is now. The Brewers Association this year listed over 130 beer styles, including a few different IPAs. They differentiate between US and English and qualify it by saying this: ‘English and citrus-like American hops are considered enough of a distinction justifying separate American-style IPA and English-style IPA categories or subcategories.’ Does this answer any questions?

An ‘IPA’ is a vast and wide area, encompassing so much that it's hard to know what to expect from anything labeled this way anymore, particularly when it comes to UK beers (how many pump clips have I seen with IPA on recently?!). But is this just the nature of brewing developments and the natural branching and progression that comes with any style? Or does it show a change in taste and mentality? Is it something else? What the hell is an IPA? And, out of interest, what are your favourite IPAs?


  1. I took the cop-out route and rechristened IPA as "International Pale Ale" for the book I'm working on (just finished, in fact). Actually, here's part of the intro for the IPA chapter (don't tell the publisher):

    "However, no one ever let the facts get in the way of a good story. Regardless of history, IPA has come to be shorthand for a fairly strong beer with a good, bright hop character. Malt plays a supporting role, providing body and sweetness against which the hops are displayed to sometimes dazzling effect. While IPA may be English in origin, this is a style that the American craft brewing scene has taken and made its own. Some of the biggest, brightest, most striking IPAs are currently being brewed in the United States. These beers eschew the understated balance of classic ales and go all out for hop hit. To get more hops in, there has to be more malt against which to balance, and as a result, the alcohol levels rise precipitously. These are the Las Vegas of the beer world – bigger, brighter, more in-your-face, and likely to leave you waking up in the morning wondering what on earth happened last night."

    Of course, IPA starts at about 3.5%abv, so even saying strong isn't strictly correct. I think you either have to delineate into tiny fine slices, and try to define lots of styles, which isn't much fun (or very interesting), or just let it be any hoppy ale that leads with the lupulin.

  2. I am sure you read this, I know two people did... ;-)

    and this a beer I brewed in California - The intention of brewing toward an IPA, oldskool if you like.

    F'it... for what little I know about beer... I will never agree it's GKIPA!

  3. I can clearly notice difference between British and American IPAs. 'Imperial' IPAs deserve to be separate too, so that's BIPAs, AIPAs and IIPA. I think that'll do for now.

  4. I for one think something labelled as an India Pale Ale should have basic characteristics that are true to what I understand to be the original IPA style - very hoppy and with a reasonably strong ABV - if only to help drinkers make an informed decision about whether they're likely to enjoy that particular beer.

    Otherwise, what's wrong with calling a pale ale a pale ale and having done with that? No shame in dropping the 'I' from the front of the 'PA' if your beer isn't actually an India Pale Ale style beer, surely?

    I had an "IPA" on Saturday night that tasted like a creamflow bitter. I was left feeling a bit disappointed, if only because I was hoping for something with a lot more bite, even though the beer was still quite pleasant.

    Just seems a bit daft on the part of the brewer: why set my expectations with an IPA label but then deliver something different?

  5. The definition of an IPA?

    At times I think it stands for 'Intended to blow your tastebuds away with hopsPale Ale' and other times it seems to mean 'I'm jumping right on the ipa name band wagon Pale Ale.

    There's no doubt there's hops and malt and a certain strength expected (often to the detriment of any balance) but the lines are very blurred.

    Some might say 'what's a pale ale' such is the delineated nomenclature of the pale ale world.

    Perhaps the classification for an IPA should be should a beer that could withstand that epic circumnavigation around Africa should it need to?!?!?!

  6. Beer styles seem to have got themselves a bit confused. Interstingly, many people call something that is 3% a mild, even if it's hoppy. BrewDog appear to have done this, although due to disappearing completely it's difficult to tell.

    A mild, in my mind, is anything that has no hops - a bit like a dead rabbit - and can be as strong as you like providing the IBU is low.

    Porter, stout, best bitter ????? - who knows what's what?

    But I digress - yes surely GKIPA is just a pair of hairy dangly ones and only bound to confuse people, IPA MUST be hoppy - but like beermerchants, perhaps I'm assuming I know enough about beer to be sure.

    At the end of the day, does it matter?

    (of course it matters to me, otherwise I wouldn't be typing this comment.....)

  7. Zak, congratulations on finishing the book! And well put - like the like Vegas allusion.

    Phil, I actually read that post twice... and what's wrong with Green King?!

    Ed, is there the need to differentiate between double and triple IPAs (if such things even exist)?! And what about those which transcend, using blends of hops from US and UK?!

    Darren, I know exactly what you mean by disappointing 'IPAs'. the name carries the expectations but then doesn't deliver. But then it goes full circle again right back to what an IPA actually is nowadays... maybe it's just a historical term that we still use for prosperity.

    Mark, that's the best classification yet: it has to survive a potential three month sea journey and be better at the end of it - I think that's rule out a lot of the new-skool stuff, for sure.

    Dave, of course it bloody matters!! :) And maybe it's like going to the cinema - if you are told it's a high-octane action film then there are certain expectations and that's the same with beer styles... (I've been working on a post about beer and films). And I think you've just named your next brew - Dead Rabbit Mild (assuming you haven't already done this)!

  8. "what's wrong with calling a pale ale a pale ale and having done with that? No shame in dropping the 'I' from the front of the 'PA' if your beer isn't actually an India Pale Ale style beer, surely?"
    I agree.
    "Perhaps the classification for an IPA should be should a beer that could withstand that epic circumnavigation around Africa should it need to?!?!?!"
    I agree.
    I have a beer I've just brewed last week its called Samuel Berry's IPA,( you may have seen the tweets) now I didn't name this beer Crown brewery has been brewing it on n of for 8 years, we already have the pump clips and bottle labels and they need using before we change them. What makes it worse the pump clip say's STRONG IPA its only 5.1% so to me its never been an IPA its an average PA strong IPA to me would be 10% +.

    I think good example of a Pale Ale thats nearly an IPA would be Sierra Nevada PA and then beers that i would call IPA's but at th lower end Punk & Jaipur would be my minimum Hoppiness, bitterness & abv but definately IPA's.

  9. I wonder if the term IPA isn't in danger of going the way of "pilsner" as a catch all term for a broad range of beers? If so it would be a shame as the original beers that inspired the style are being lost in the fog of imitations.

  10. If the original IPA was designed to withstand a long and arduous sea voyage by ramping up the hop content and the ABV then surely these need to be 'non-negotiables in any IPA branded beer.

    Comments are spot-on regarding the confusion and illusion created by brewers sticking an IPA label on a Pale Ale - if they want to be noticed, why not coin a new term? Use NZ, Australian or US hops and call it a New World Pale Ale, or whatever. If it LOOKS like a duck and it WADDLES like a duck and it SMELLS like a duck ...

    Velky Al - I agree completely. In Australia we already suffer from the "Premium Lager"/"pilsner" curse where brewers stick a metallic neck tag and poncy fonts on a bog-standard beer, up the price by 10% and pretend it's a different beer. Prpoer craft brewers can't afford to follow that same path.

    Prof. Pilsner

  11. Stu, interesting brewers perspective... one thing that makes me 'know' that I'm getting an IPA is the ABV. Anything above 5.5% and I'm more inclined to believe what the label says.

    Velky Al, good point, there is the definite danger of it going the pilsner route and losing all sense of history (maybe we're already past that point...).

    Prof., like the duck analogy, and New World Pale Ale, or International Pale Ale as Zak suggests. IPA is still an important name though and it'd be a shame to lose it...

    Great commenting guys!

  12. Hmm... I'm actually writing a column for Brewers' Guardian that was inspired by very much the same thinking but talks more broadly about our hang ups on 'style' - what constitutes a beer style? How broad is it? Is it allowed to evolve? One prominent home brewer in the UK has informed me that the beer I took to India wasn't an IPA because it had crystal malt in it. I almost punched him in the face. (I was in therapy at the tome dealing with the emotional fallout of having done what I did for H&G. I didn't take kindly to being told that the whole thing was invalid).

    Generally speaking I think we need to be quite relaxed about defining beer styles. The one and only thing I dislike about the North American craft brew scene is their obsession with endlessly subdividing styles - can anyone tell me what an 'other European style pilsner' is relative to 'Czech style pilsner' and 'German style pilsner'?

    But you obviously do need some framework. The problem is when it becomes historical. IPA CHANGED in the early twentieth century. It lost its balls. Greene King is simply the main survivor from countless brands fro that period rather than some sinister beer that one day decided to appropriate the name. Fifty years ago most people involved in this debate would have been arguing for quite different beers than they are here.

    BUt I reckon the idea that an IPA needs to be of sufficient strength and hop character to survive a journey to India is a very good solution. I'd add only add that it needs to be brewed predominantly with pale malt - porter was also 7% and heavily hopped - and contrary to popular myth, was almost as successful in India as IPA.

  13. One point you've made to me before, Pete, is that the first IPAs were de facto new beers - they haven't always been there - and to try and freeze a point in history and point to it as being the apogee of brewing is bloody nonsense.

    No doubt there were people up in arms at the iconoclastic beers that Hodgson and Allsopp were brewing, but sady there was no equivalent of blogging at the time, and so the drunkan rants of the traditionalists are lost forever (well, untill blogging caught on in the 21st century, anyway!)

  14. Pete, I think there's an obvious and natural evolution of style and it happens with everything - art, music, film - it goes through fashions. Currently the fashion seems to be somewhere between hitting extremities (strength, taste, ingredients) and brewing traditional beers, so I guess we could say it's a bit of a 'Brewing New Wave' (if no one has coined that phrase then I shotgun it!). The history is obviously very important because history creates the future. I'd be interested to find out how long it took from when these pale beers started to be brewed to when it became a recognised and famed style (maybe it was only famed the way it is now in retrospect - although I'm sure I read answers to these points in H&G).

    IPAs are such an important style in the beer world that it's worth discussing and thinking about - Old-school and new-skool are both very important, it's the blurring of the inbetweeners that bother me.

  15. " porter was also 7% and heavily hopped - and contrary to popular myth, was almost as successful in India as IPA." would that make todays Black IPA's old skool porters then?

  16. "to try and freeze a point in history and point to it as being the apogee of brewing is bloody nonsense"

    Czechs have pretty much done this with Pilsner and I know plenty of Czechs who will swear blind that Czech beer is the best in the world, blah, blah, blah while they drink their Gambrinus or some other big name lager.