A Bit About: India Pale Ales

All over the world craft brewers are producing excellent, bitter IPAs with both piney citrus subtleties and giant hammers of hops. The distinctive style has gone from a colonial British beer in the 19th century to almost disappearing, only to be revived by a loving cadre of beer geeks and shortly thereafter, becoming one of the most recognized styles in the world.

IPA stands for India Pale Ale, a extra bitter, 19th century evolution of older pale ale recipes from England. The key to these beers is the flavoring from a plant called hops, a vine closely related to hemp that joins it’s highly aromatized oils to the wort during the brewing process giving the beers their distinctive flavor and aroma, while adding a natural preservative to the brew.

A New Style
Beer has been with us for 10,000 years. It’s been credited with the rise of agriculture and thus, human civilization itself. Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures considered beer a holy drink and used it both for rituals and currency. The Romans brought it to northern Europe with their legions, while across the Atlantic, Native Americans brewed with corn, and to the East, the Chinese fermented rice into their own versions similar to Europe’s barley-based drink.

In the early medieval period of Europe, the Church began to take over what was a traditionally a housewife’s chore, that of brewing. Many of the monks and nuns were educated people (or perhaps just beer nuts like the sort you meet at microbreweries today) who experimented with various herbs, fruits, and flowers. Hops became popular for flavoring beer around 1000 CE, and in the early 16th century, Bavaria passed a law that regulated beer production to three ingredients only: water, malted barley, and hops. (Yeast wouldn’t be discovered until 1857.) Hops had come into it’s own.

And so had an island kingdom called England, which was already well known in Continental Europe for being a great brewer of ales. As the empire of Britain grew, it’s soldiers and sailors and citizens abroad, like all expats, longed for a taste of home. In hot places, beer was difficult to brew, and as the sea voyages got longer, any beer shipped overseas spoiled and became undrinkable. India was not only hot, but a difficult 6 month voyage from the costs of Britain, utterly unsuitable for beer.

Entering onto the stage now is a little known English beer called October Ale. This was a massively hopped pale ale that was meant to be aged for 2 years before drinking. Bow Brewery, under the auspices of a man named Hodgson, sent this October beer off to India, where is was greeted with acclaim. Not long after his success, and with the collapse of England’s beer trade with Russia, other breweries began to copy Hodgson’s beer. The trial shipments in 1827 were a success, and regular cargoes of the strongly flavored beer flowed out of England to places like Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras.

By 1840, the style had gained the name India Pale Ale, with rising popularity all over Britain, however the IPAs fell out of favor when refrigeration made the need for hops as a preservative redundant.  With the rise of craft breweries in the United States in the 1970’s, brewers re-discovered this bitter, citrusy ale recipe and ran with it, creating a craze that would eventually spark an IPA revolution in it’s own country of origin.

Walk into a bar and order an IPA today and the bartender will most likely hand you a list of options. You’ll find American Pale Ales, wheat pale ales, Belgian-style pale ales, rye pale ales, and the very of-the-moment session pales, just to name a few. These new styles vary from that original beer through the use of different hops, grains, and alcohol content. The choices for pale ale outstrip all other ale styles. In April of 2015, Paste Magazine was able to get 116 American-made IPAs to taste, while here in HCMC, the new craft beer bar Rogue Saigon has 9 available- most of which are brewed here in Vietnam. So get out there and get drinking.  Let us know what your favorite IPA, APA, or other pale ale is your favorite!

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