My first mouthful of IPA tasted like stewed runner’s socks. Being the staunch PBR and High Life patron that I was, I sought refreshment and inebriation from beer. It needed to be so cold I couldn’t taste it and so weak I could get drunk on a very mild gradient. But this bitter sap in my mouth had a dense, soupy quality that made me think of a mountainside broth of boiled down bark, tart berries and pine needles. What was happening inside my mouth was ferociously unpleasant. My ignorant palate was getting a beating — for its own good.
While it is said to be the most popular style of American craft beer, the bold India Pale Ale is absolutely not for everyone. The explosive hoppy flavor leaps from the glass and plunders your mouth of any residual taste that might be lingering around. Its strength and bitterness send many cowering away, but those are precisely the qualities that make this beer so enjoyable.
But even given it's popularity, a lot of people have no idea what IPA actually is. They know that they either love or hate the dank copper ale, but they can’t explain why it tastes the way it does or how it came into being. So we’ve taken it upon ourselves to break down the birth and evolution of the IPA and to explain what it is that makes this brash and complex alcohol as divisive as it is.
IPA originated around 1760 when the British were still enjoying the dominance of their empire. The East India Trading Company was sending ships back and forth beneath the African continent, and alcohol was a frequent passenger on those ships. Their ale wasn’t able to keep during the long journeys as a result of the stifling new climate and by the time they arrived in the colonies the ale was no longer drinkable.
Brewers in England believed that by increasing the hop content of their beer, thus upping the alcohol percentage, they would be able to stop their beers from succumbing to the heat of the subcontinent. They were right, but what they didn’t consider was that this weird new beer would transcend necessity and become a favorite with people beyond their affluent colonialist customers.
These days there are five distinct kinds of IPA: American, English, Belgian, Black and Double/Triple/Quadruple.
The new American IPA is probably what you are most acquainted with. It’s bold, brash and strong, and it packs an awful lot of character. It’s the big, endearing guy in the corner who makes everyone laugh with his filthy jokes. Not for everyone’s taste; but if you’re in, he’s fantastic.
The English IPA is more subdued. It isn’t as strong, aggressive or loud as its American cousin, but that’s the English for you. More subtle, reserved and with a silence smoothed by time and honed by tradition, this is a very nice entry point for anyone new to IPA.
Belgians are never going to lag too far behind when it comes to developing a beer. Theirs is a New World/Old World hybrid that copies the American format but uses European hops to bring their own taste to the table.
The Black IPAs are a terrifying prospect for the light lager crowd. Making an already unapproachable beer pitch black, and with a heavy roasted malt boot stuffed right into its body, this is no entry point for those who are curious about beer. You have to hold their hand through the different beers before bringing them here.
Double/Triple/Quadruple IPAs are only for the extremely bold. For a first-timer they are bitterly offensive and could lose him forever. Made by adding two to four times as much hops and bringing the alcohol content right up to balance the taste, these are means of showcasing quality hops and defiantly throwing down the gauntlet to the baseball-capped, bearded beer guy.
The IPA is like Islay Single Malts, dry-aged steak and subtitles — some people will never, ever like them. But that’s okay. Let them have their Coors and their Southern Comfort, their Sizzler and the “Fast and the Furious 17.” But a gentle toe before diving into the water would certainly help in convincing a few more folk that things are a bit more interesting at the hoppy end of the spectrum.