The American IPA: Amber waves of grain…and malts…and of course, hops.

For the month in which we celebrate the birthday of America, it was an easy choice to decide on which beer style to celebrate: the American IPA!  Not unlike our own great country, this is a brew that originated in England; but like all great things made in the U. S. of A., we’ve take the style and made it our own: strong, bold, and patriotically hop-tastic.

A Brief History of the IPA: Survival of the Fittest

The India Pale Ale, or IPA, traces its roots back to the earliest Pale Ales of the 14th century–ales which were brewed from pale malt.  But when the 18th century rolled around, England wanted to begin sending beer to its troops stationed around the world, including in India, where the warm climate was none too conducive for brewing.  To prevent spoilage during the six-month trip overseas (these were the days before refrigeration and pasteurization), brewers raised the alcohol content of their beer and added hops–both of which help to prevent the growth of bacteria in beer.  The result?  A strong, bitter beer that the English soldiers, and eventually, the general public, happily embraced.  And so, the IPA was born.

George Hodgson: Man or Myth?

Many histories of the IPA credit a brewer named George Hodgson with “inventing” the first IPA in 1785; but really, this man, who worked at the Bow Brewery (located a bit east of London, near the Middlesex-Essex border), was just the first to gain supremacy in the Indian market through his dealings with the East India Company.  It is more likely that other brewers, including those in Burton upon Trent (a town well known for its brewing industry), were creating similar brews as Hodgson was selling his, as any brewer worthy of his title would know that beers high in alcohol and hops would have the best chance of surviving a long journey overseas.  And as for the date–1785–that is the year during which an advertisement ran in the Calcutta Gazette for the Hodgson-style Pale Ale; but 1785 was simply the date that this British-Indian newspaper was first published, not necessarily the year that Pale Ale began its existence in India.  In fact, there are records going back to the early 1700s in which the India-style Pale Ale is mentioned–and from Burton brewers, no less.  So we can probably say with some confidence that although Mr. Hodgson might’ve helped popularize the IPA, he most likely didn’t invent it.

America, Fuck Yeah!

Okay, so we know America likes to take things and make them bigger, better, faster, and stronger; well, the IPA is no different, and nowadays you’ll be hard-pressed to find a craft brewery in the U.S. that doesn’t have an original IPA in their line-up.  In the American IPAs you’ll find hops a-plenty, in regional varietals: Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, Amarillo, Tomahawk, Warrior, Nugget, et al, with an ABV clocking in at around 6.0-8.0%.  (The Brits like to stick to their own hop varieties, such as Golding, Fuggles, and Bullion, and the ABV usually falls somewhere between 4.0-6.5%.)  And of course, America kicks it up a notch by offering Double IPAs (also known as Imperial IPAs), which are stronger in both flavor and alcohol content (~7.0-14.0%), i.e. hop flavor to the maxxx.  This style originated on the West Coast, but has made its way cross-country, because even gals in New Jersey need to get punched in the face with a fistful of hops every now and then.  As Brendan Moylan, founder of the Moylan Brewing Company in Novato, CA, puts it, “We’re the same country that put men on the moon, and we’re taking the same approach to beer…We passed the rest of the world by ages ago, and they’re just waking up to it.”  Couldn’t have said it better ourselves, Brendan.  Fuck yeah.

(Read more about Mr. Moylan in this great New York Times article about how X-TREME America is in its IPA brewing.)

Uncle Sam wants YOU to drink beer.

So, what to expect from the American IPA?

Sight: Look for a color ranging from very pale gold to reddish amber, with a white or off-white sticky head.  Most American IPAs will be relatively clear, but the unfiltered or dry-hopped varieties will appear a bit hazy.

Smell: The aroma of an American IPA is of course that of American hops: citrusy, floral, piney, herbal, or fruity.  Oh, and don’t forget bitter.  You might get a slight note of malts, but not as strong as you’ll find in an English IPA.

Flavor: As expected, the dominant flavor will be hops, hops, and more hops.  The same citrus-flower-pine-or-fruit notes from the American hops will be present, and a clean maltiness will balance out some of the hoppy bitterness, although it’s the bitterness that will probably be the main lingering aftertaste.  Some of the more alcoholic varieties will likely (but not surprisingly) give you some notes of alcohol as well.

Feel: A smooth, medium-bodied mouthfeel.

So, happy birthday, America.  This month, we celebrate our life, our liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–and by happiness, we mean the consumption of delicious, delicious beer.  Cheers to American IPAs!

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