In the world of India Pale Ales, the hop plant rules all. It is the quintessential ingredient and flavor that makes a good IPA everything that it is and should be. In every real IPA, whether it is light and floral, or robust and citrus, there should be an obvious hop character found in the aroma and flavor of the beer. This seems obvious, however commercial breweries have flooded the market with so called IPAs which have confused and hypnotized beer drinkers everywhere to believe that their bland and monotone product is what an IPA should be. Really, this is not the case.
Let’s start with a touch of history. When England was colonizing India in the late 1700s they were shipping barrels of classic pale ale as well as rich dark ales to India along with their crew; often this beer’s purpose was payment for workers services to England, as well as for the new inhabitants of India. At the time there was no real refrigeration; beer couldn’t be brewed in Calcutta due to the warm climate and by the time the ale made it to India after four or five months on sea, it had spoiled. Beer was considered a very important staple at the time, and sailors and workers were in an uproar over their now useless payment. It was typical at the time that each sailor would receive one gallon of strong beer per day. Beyond that, the settlers were also becoming frustrated that they had left a land rich in great beer only to find a land barren of beer.
When word came back to England about the ruined beer, brewers began working on adding preservative qualities to their beer. Already, dried hop flowers were being used to add favor, spice and bitterness to beer; the hops were being used directly during the brewing process. Along with wide range of exciting flavors, hops also add a natural preservative quality to beer. So brewers began brewing their pale ales as usual, but then after the wort had fermented and became beer, they would steep the beer with dried hops. This would allow the raw nutrients (humulus lupulus) and flavors in the hops to be fully absorbed. When used in the actual brewing process, much of the flavor and potency of the hops would be lost during the boil. But when steeped in the beer after fermentation, most of the hop character will retain its influence adding significant spice, bitterness and strength to the beer.
Specifically it was George Hodgson who first began brewing pale ales of greater strength and bitterness than the usual British Pale Ales. The added hops and increased alcohol would protect the beer from spoilage; as well Hodgson would allow the beer to ferment for months, thus allowing the yeast to eat away most, if not all of the residual sugars in the beer. The end result was a stronger, more bitter pale ale which created a terrible environment for organisms to live in and spoil the beer.
When Hodgson’s Pale ale arrived in Calcutta the beer was crisp, clear, strong, and bitter with a large resinous hop aroma. Sailors and the British inhabitants of India were thrilled with its arrival, and its success there was immediate. The rest of the world however was still unaware of the beer. This all changed in 1827 when a ship on its way to India crashed in the Irish Sea. Many barrels of the Pale Ale were saved and auctioned to the public. Soon word spread of the “India Beer”, and quickly breweries all across Europe were brewing India Pale Ales.
For the rest of the story and a review on some real IPAs, see part 2.