It’s Time to Rename the IPA, the American Beer Drinker’s Drug of Choice
The IPA. The most sold craft beer style in the United States. In my opinion, also the most vapidly overproduced beer in the United States. According to the Brewers Association, IPAs made up 26.49% of the craft beer market. Seasonal, as in all seasonal releases, came in next at 13.96% (Craft Brewing Business, 2017).
That’s a pretty sizeable difference. And it’s not the brewers dictating the market. If you were to ask a brewer what they’re drinking right now, they probably won’t say an IPA. It’s the market dictating what the brewers make. And yes, I could illustrate a mental caricature of who the average IPA drinking is (as I’m sure many of us could), but that’s not the purpose of this blog post (don’t’ get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for an IPA. But when 30% of the local brewpub’s taps are dedicated to the style, that’s oversaturation).
The purpose of this blog post is to point out why the IPA, at least the Americanized version of it, needs to have a different name because what the American IPA has become differs drastically from that of the original India Pale Ale.
So What in Bloody Blazes is an India Pale Ale?
Yes, yes. We all know it’s bitter. And it’s bitter because of hops. Brewers love to use a play on the ‘hops’ word when titling beers almost as much as Toyota Prius owners use ‘green’ on their novelty license plates. But beyond hops and bitter, what makes an IPA an IPA?
Well, the OG version of the IPA used pale malt, thus the “pale ale” portion of the name. Of course, most pale ales are, well, actually pale. I’ve found East Coast IPAs (the East vs. West Coast IPA isn’t exactly a thing, as many breweries in the US do use hops from both locations, although East Coast hops have a bit more of a citrus flavor to it, while West Coast is a bit more on the pine side) to have more of that vibrant, almost orange gold color to it. But still, most IPAs are paler than other beers.
Back in the day when the sun never set on the United Kingdom, several brewers shipped beer around the world. Destinations such as India and the Caribbean didn’t have the same crops on hand to make the kind of beers British soldiers were accustomed to. So breweries like Hodgson’s and Bow shipped ales with the East India Company.
The thing about ales is the shelf life. Or, better put, ales have a very limited shelf life. Now, had the British turned to their European brethren the Germans, they could have used recipes for lagers. Lagers have a natural refrigerate element used in production so lagers last substantially longer than ales (ales are warm fermented and produced quickly while lagers are cold fermented and take longer to produce).
Ales would need quick consumption, and when left at sea for weeks on end, it resulted in spoiling. American brewers in the late 1800s more or less “fixed” the problem by creating a different style.
Brewers in California wanted to quickly produce beer for the swath of gold prospectors, yet it needed a beer that lasted longer. So it used the refrigeration ingredients of the lager while warm fermenting the beer to produce a style known as steam (although many of the current steam beers are not made the same way).
Anyway, back to the British, they didn’t want to use the lager ingredients, so instead they added more hops into barrels to help keep the beer fresh longer. The beer arriving in port cities around the world came with a more bitter taste, although the alcohol content went up only marginally.
The American IPA
So yeah, the IPA has been around (the world) for a while now. In fact, its 200th birthday is coming up in the next decade or so. If you’re 25 and under, the IPA has probably always been the king of craft, but for those of us in the third decade of our lives or beyond, we remember a time where that wasn’t always the case.
Long before the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, the US government nuked the American beer industry with prohibition. Following its repeal, you could count the number of breweries on your fingers (no toes required). However, President Jimmy Carter, ever the humanitarian, passed a few laws making home brewing legal, which eventually led to the opening of several local breweries in the late 1980s.
Up until this time, American beer drinkers had their lagers made from corn and rice. A handful of imports existed, but in reality, anyone wanting variety needed to buy a plane ticket.
The major burden for breweries like Harpoon, Anchor and Samuel Adams (the Boston Beer Company at the time) was to introduce Americans with zero beer palettes to brand new styles.
In 1993, Harpoon released an IPA summer seasonal. The company used a British recipe, combined it with American hops and included its own crafted yeast strain, which helped reduce the bitterness (CNBC, 2013).
Several years ago, I had a neighbor watch my dog. She didn’t have her own dog but was extremely excited. Before leaving the dog with her she scooped out a bowl of food, set it in front of him, then cracked a raw egg over the dry kibble. My dog looked up at her like she just spit on his food. I imagine American drinkers consuming bitter beer in 1993 shared a similar expression.
While a seasonal beer, the Harpoon IPA eventually became the top-selling beer for the company. Word of mouth spread of this “unusual yet refreshing” beer. Other breweries took notice. Stone Brewing in San Diego followed in Harpoon’s path, as did Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada.
Pushing For Hops
As sales for IPAs increased, companies started to push the bitterness. It became an almost anti-establishment beer. If you wanted something as far different from an American light lager, you went to the IPA. However, it’s at this point in time the American IPA took a drastic shift.
The original IPA used added hops as a means of preventing spoilage. The early introduction of the IPA in the United States offered something fresh and different. But then brewers started to add more and more hops, not necessarily for flavor, but to increase the bitterness and, likewise, to increase the alcohol level.
Many IPAs in the states now aren’t even pale. I can’t tell you how many IPAs I’ve tried that are darker than the ambers. It’s to the point where the beers compete with a hefty Belgian triple.
Hops: The Beer Drug
In many ways, hops became a drug for the consumer. I won’t say the brewer because as Tony Montana found out, you don’t get off on your own product. Beer drinkers became acclimated to the hoppy flavor. But eventually, the bitterness wore off.
It didn’t do it for them, so they needed something with more hops and a stronger bite. They kept pushing for more and more to stave off the cravings of bitterness crawling through their body.
The United States doesn’t just have an opioid addiction. It has a hops addiction.
The America Pale Ale
The American IPA has evolved in the last 25 years or so since Harpoon first really kicked it off on the East Coast (it existed in spots on the West Coast at the time). It’s no longer the British based IPA with American hops. It’s taken on a life of its own. Realistically, it’s time to drop “India” from the title and swap in “America.”
The beer is no longer based off of the old India Pale Ales. Many of the ingredients are now different, and there are even variations of the American variant (double and triple IPAs for those who want hops to scorch bitter holes into their tongues, as well as hybrids).
Even the whole East Coast vs. West Coast thing isn’t exactly defined. I get way more citrus out of my East Coast Boston beers, while the LA Times suggests the opposite. In an age where tradition be damned, it’s about time to appropriately name the beer.
At least then, we could have brewers bring back the old school British IPAs and we’d know what to expect when slinking up to a brand new brewery.