I can’t lie, this article is about beer. But not just any beer—it is about India Pale Ale (commonly referred to as IPA).
One of the most popular beer styles on the market today, India Pale Ale often saturates beer markets and beer drinkers’ palates with its sometimes over-the-top hoppy flavor profile.
Bitter is a major factor when tasting an IPA, as the style employs an increased amount of hops which can add what is often described as “evident, bracing, and even aggressive bitterness”. Since everyone has slightly different tastes, what may be “evident” bitterness to one craft beer drinker may be “bracing” to another.
While bitterness of an IPA has a lot to do with a person’s individual perception, we also know that tastes can change over time. You may not have enjoyed the first highly-hopped IPA you tried, but over time, perhaps you grew to really enjoy a bracingly bitter IPA—or not, that’s ok too!
Human taste is pre-wired from the time we’re born. For example, innately we like the taste of sweet things as children, but perhaps do not take to sour or bitter flavors right away. But as we grow up and try new things, our brain figures out that not all sour and bitter flavors are bad, such is the case with IPAs.
Each individual’s personal taste is as unique as their fingerprints—and it’s totally subjective. What one may like about the flavor of an IPA may be different from what another may or may not like about the style.
Each of us has a unique set of tastes, both inherited and learned. Some will never like the bitterness of an IPA, and others, over time, will decide they do. Fortunately, there are plenty of IPAs out there to test and train your taste buds.
The adventure of IPA has proven irresistible to me. Over the past several years I have sampled a wide range of IPAs brewed in the United States and Canada, and these beers have rarely disappointed.
You can drink a different IPA darn near every day and never grow bored. I should know. And, no, I’m not sick of IPAs just yet. And, in the Pacific Northwest, it sometimes seems that that is all you can get these days.
But what is an India Pale Ale?
First off, despite its name India Pale Ales are really British in origin. It is a hoppy beer style within the broader category of pale ale. Originally it referred to pale ale prepared for India; the high hop content preserved the beer for the long journey from England to India.
The problem facing the British during the 18th and 19th centuries was that beer did not keep well on long ocean voyages, especially voyages into hot climates. The trip to India took at least six months, crossing the equator twice.
Based on the Pale Ale style, English brewers in the early 1800s began brewing a more stable beer to withstand the long and rigorous journey to India. A common method was to heavily hop the beer and take advantage of the acids in hops which act as a natural preservative. From this they were left with a rather light colored, bitter, dry, and higher alcoholic beverage—compared to other ales of the day.
Next time you hoist an IPA, think of the thirsty British sailors whose penchant for ale on arduous ship journeys, helped indirectly, to foster this style.
Today, India Pale Ales can be found all over the world with varying degrees of hop, malt, and alcohol levels. Very few are even close to what the early IPA used to be. The IPA mark can also be found on numerous beer labels throughout the world, seemingly regardless of its contents. American brewers often push the limits of acceptance and lambast the palate in an attempt to make the strongest and/or hoppiest beers possible.
On the flipside many brewers, world-wide, will brew a more mild ale and call it an IPA, when in fact it is a Pale Ale. Although not always true to style, the American-style IPA has come into its own as a style that meets a niche crowd of beer drinkers who crave hops.
In future posts we’ll take you on a tangy tour of the South’s finest India Pale Ales to know—and drink.
For a quart of ale is a meal for a king.