First Draughts: WTF is an IPA?

by DGO Web Administrator

When I first started working at Ska Brewing, I was given a tour. Patrick Jose (now head brewer at Carver Brewing Co.) was on the brew deck and I asked him what they were brewing.

“Modus, Modus, Modus, it’s always Modus,” he said.

Modus Hoperandi is the flagship IPA for Ska. Love it or hate it, IPA is a beer style that every brewery has to have right now. This wasn’t always the case. When I first started drinking craft beer, it was Red/Amber Ale (thank you, New Belgium). But the real important question is, WTF is an IPA?

An India Pale Ale is a hoppy ale, with a slightly higher ABV and slightly darker color than a normal Pale Ale. It was originally brewed for British colonists in India (which did not have an alcohol culture of its own because of religious and cultural reasons).

India Pale Ale was, like most beers, a product of its time and place and created to solve a problem. In the case of IPA, it was How do we get drinkable beer across the world in a boat? Then, all these little miracles/coincidences happened in the successful spread and popularity of the first global beer.

(Here I should give a little trigger warning: I’m going to get real nerdy about beer and the history of British Imperialism for a few sentences.)

In the early 1800s, the time around the beginning of British colonization of India, everything the world needed for the creation of India Pale Ale existed for the first time. If a different country had colonized India, if it had happened a hundred years earlier, if a different brewery had been given the contracts to brew the beer, or even if India had colonized Britain, then the IPA wouldn’t have happened.

All the ingredients (and the money) came together at the perfect time. Like present day, hoppy beers were trending and they were just starting to grow their own hops in England. Pale ale malts had just been perfected thanks to newly-invented coke-fired kilns (coke is a highly refined coal). The brewery given the contract to brew the beer sent to India was in Burton-upon-Trent (where the water is perfect for brewing bitter beers), and the purchasers were given 18 months free credit on the shipment (I would easily drink myself blind if The Ranch gave me a tab I didn’t have to repay for 18 months).

A lot of beer was initially spoiled on the trip, but the beer that successfully made it to India was higher in alcohol (yay!) and used more hops (yay!). Recognizing their success and learning from their failures, the beer was intentionally brewed that way from then on.

Styles of beer always reflect regional peculiarities, storage demands or work-arounds for government rules or ingredient shortages/surpluses. Making beer has mostly been about solving a problem. India Pale Ale was created when the time/distance problem was still hard to overcome. The IPA conquered that and brought a flavor profile with it that we love to this day.

Robert Alan Wendeborn puts the bubbles in the beer at Ska Brewing Co. His first book of poetry, The Blank Target, was published this past spring by The Lettered Streets Press and is available at Maria’s Bookshop. [email protected]

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