The Next Path For India Pale Ale


Click on the above image for good resolution. It is from an English hop harvest, 1944.*

I was looking at Beer, the 2007 and last book from Michael Jackson before his passing in the same year.

As was traditional in his books, the U.S. section featured a regional subdivision. Northeast, South, Midwest, Mountains, Pacific Northwest and California and Hawaii were canvassed.

It’s instructive to peruse the styles covered across the regions.  While a brewery and beer selection of this type are never an accurate sample, it is striking how many blonde and other lagers, brown ales, “ambers”, bocks and ESBs there are, i.e., next to the pale ales/IPAs and porter/stouts which are still or even more so part of the craft scene. These beers were typical fare in the first decades of the beer revival.

A modern beer menu of any scope will feature, aside again the pale ale and porter group, Berliner weisse, Gratzer, Gose, Saison, Grisette, Belgian and Black IPA – in my view not really IPA subsets – and generic “sours” and “wild ales”, often flavoured with spices, fruits or other things. These have shouldered out many of the non-pale ale and porter group of 2007.

If “murky” keg IPA and other beers are a kind of style, those are new too.

It is doubtful that some of these currently fashionable beers will have staying power, whereas pale ale and IPA have proved theirs. Yet, I’ve never really understood their great appeal. The taste is strongly citrus of some kind (usually grapefruit), with a white pith aftertaste and some rough bitterness. The current craze for turbidity usually adds a stinging yeast note, too.  It can be refreshing and good with food, but the taste and relatively high strength of IPA certainly seem in many ways outside the traditional beer ethos of “moreish” drinks. I’d guess it’s due to being so different so relatively early, like Jagermeister, say. (The name India Pale Ale has a certain romance too though, that’s part of it).

A new focus I’d like to see is English pale ale or IPA. By this I mean, a beer, i) using hops that are traditionally English (Fuggles, Golding or Challenger, Target or other later growths which do not taste “Pacific Northwest”), ii) that uses mainly pale ale malt with a low percentage of, or no, brewing sugars or crystal malt, and iii) which uses a traditional English yeast. I should add as well that you need to use a lot of these hops both for bittering and aroma. 19th century brewing manuals are good guides for this. Using just a little hop makes people think English ales or their hops are “mild” and this is very far from true. In fact, using the same amount of Pacific Northwest hopping vs. English in the ways typically done for bitterness and aroma puts English hop flowers at a disadvantage. But as historical recreations prove, pale ales/IPAs brewed to authentic period recipes had huge character.

I experienced many of these great beers in the 80’s in England. Despite the variety, there was a uniquely English stamp to them, part of it was the yeasts used, part the hops, part the floor-malted traditional malts. The beers tend to taste best naturally-conditioned on the hand pump but so-called keg versions, poured chilled and fizzy, can be very good too. In Ontario, we have a couple of beers that deliver this English character. A new one I had recently is Collingwood Brewery ESB, soon to appear on the market in cans. Junction Conductor’s Brakeman’s Session in Toronto often has an English character although the hop character seems to vary from time to time. At Bar Volo, House Ales’ Session Bitter, now at 4.2% ABV, is a decidedly English interpretation of the pale ale style. In Quebec, Albion in Saint-Hyacinthe is a historical English revivalist and makes some some wonderful beers.

Many brewers in North America have claimed to make English-style ales, indeed in the Northeast the craft beer revival flew this flag proudly in its earlier period. Most in fact are hybrids, mixing American and U.K. flavours.

I don’t buy the argument that we “should” drink grapefruity, piney or “dank” beers because those are the hop flavours our soils produce. By that logic, the U.S. never would have developed a vinifera wine industry. I believe hop varieties can be developed which closely match an English or allied taste, shall we say. The Sterling hop is an example, which produces a superbly fragrant pale ale yet one rarely seen in the market. And our brewers can import English hops that deliver the real deal and encourage the suppliers to grow more. Nothing like demand to stimulate a market. I find it ludicrous that a new generation of U.K. brewers are avid for our hops – Cascade is being grown now in England –  and we are blasé about theirs, arguably the superior for fine pale ale. That was English brewing opinion, and North American too, for generations until recently.

To mix poetical references, go east young (or any) brewers, to Albion’s shore; drink deep of the Pierian spring whence flowed the first pale ale; the ribbon’d wreath shall be yours.


*Image is in public domain, details here.



2 thoughts on “The Next Path For India Pale Ale”

  1. For many years the American hop breeders focused on alpha acids, but that’s starting change and the flavours are too. A decade ago they were often still citrusy, but some were indeed more dank. Now it’s the tropical fruit flavours that are becoming more common (like the newer hops from the Southern Hemisphere as well). I think some of them would be better suited to Belgian styles (playing with the esters from the yeast), but then I adore citrus and pine in an American IPA. Personally, I just don’t think some of the new hops taste right in an IPA (I do like Mosaic in my house IPA though).

    I’m actually surprised more brewers aren’t showcasing new hops in different styles. This summer I dry-hopped an American Wheat with Citra & Azacca, which worked really well. As for Sterling, I’d probably put it in a Belgian Blonde or a Pilsner. It’d be great to see American Lagers with bold, new-world hop flavours!

    I guess what I’m saying is don’t change the IPA, make the other styles just as interesting!

    • I had an all-Sterling pale ale at Indie Ale House a couple of years ago which was superb. There is a Saaz element in it which would go in lager too, but its mixed parentage makes it suitable for ales as well. Hop flavours evolve over time, even or especially the New World type. Still, there is a point to be made I think that much IPA is very similar and the citric yellow fruit thing seems to be a constant.

      A new direction, using old models, is in order for pale ale/IPA IMO. Northern Brewer can help pave the way as an English-type hybrid perhaps but I remain convinced that it is possible to develop true English flavours here. Oregon Fuggles are already a success and further work could perhaps align them even closer to the English Kent character.

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