IPA. It's a mystery to many people, including a fair few beer drinkers.
Why? It might be the fact that IPA is an abbreviation so if you don't know what it stands for, you've probably not got much to go on. Or maybe you know it stands for India Pale Ale, but other than mentioning it's a Pale Ale, you don't really know what India has to do with it.
Well, a little history goes a long way when it comes to demystifying the wonders of India Pale Ale.
Since before the turn of the 19th century, the Great British Empire had a problem. A problem in that the British naval men travelling to India, and the colonialists in the country, were parched and longing for the taste of a sweet, thirst quenching English ale. In these years of the British Empire, travelling to India was no easy task. An arduous journey at sea took between three and five months in challenging and varying climates. A journey which, needless to say, was not exactly an optimum environment for traditional English ale.
Beer was a common drink in England, being popular for not only the taste, but it was also safer to drink than many pure water sources. The water in India was less than pleasant, and full of contaminants, however the heat was too great to brew home-style beer. Taking beer on board resulted in a flat, soured, and generally unpleasant beer. A solution was needed.
George Hodgson had this very solution.
In the mid 1700's, Londoners had started to drink a new style of ale - a paler ale of reddish and copper hues. These were the first ales made using pale maltsbeing quite different to the usual stouts, porters and brown ales. To try and create a beer which would last several months at sea for both consumption and trade, Hodgson experiemented with pale ale, applying his knowledge of beer chemistry.
Beer became undrinkable on this voyage due to a number of factors, one of the main culprits was bacteria which bred in the warm environment. Hops contain a natural chemical called isohumulone which is an antibiotic - this was the original reason for use in brewing. Alcohol also has a similar, but stronger, antimicrobial property. Hodgson increased both of these ingredients in the new pale ale in an attempt to preserve the ale for the voyage. He also primed (added sugar to) his casks to allow a little more fermentation, and added dry hops for yet more preservatation.
The resultant beer matured and condition over the journey, incredibly reaching India in a drinkable state. This new 'India Pale Ale' was a high alcohol, highly hopped bitter which travelled well over sea. The soldiers and sailors were happy, and colonists were able to trade the ale for an income. After a while there was a demand for this new style of beer in England, leading a revolution in beer styles.
And that's how IPA came about.
So an original IPA from the 1830's was a hoppy, bitter, high ABV pale ale. Now, if you look at an IPA you'll see that it's rare to find an IPA which fits this description - usually the ABV is much lower. The style of beer has significantly changed from its original roots due to an evolution over years, the direction of which was influenced by the introduction and increase in alcohol tax. This forced brewers to reduce the ABV and IPA has gradually become a term used more generically to describe a hoppy, bitter, session beer.
One of the most popular and well recognised IPA's today is Greene King IPA which is a hoppy, golden coloured bitter at 3.6% ABV - not an original 1830's IPA, but a good example of a contemporary IPA.
Pete Brown's latest book, 'Hops and Glory', tells the tale of his (rather insane) journey to India with an IPA, sailing the old school route over a grueling few months. Only a real artisan would want to take on this task to truly comprehend not only the travel and development of this beer, but take on the unique life experience of sailing to India. In a brilliant way, I think he's bonkers.
So now you know a little more about IPA - it's roots, form, and evolution over the past few centuries. Enjoy your next IPA, and give a little thought to the years of history and development behind the style. And to Pete Brown and his crazy voyage.