By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Lew Bryson
It's time to take a closer look at a particular type of beer: India pale ale, almost always abbreviated "IPA."
IPA has been one of the big success stories of the craft brewing movement (that's what we used to call the "microbrewing" movement ... but it's hard to call almost 100 million cases a year "micro"). Craft breweries are more likely to brew IPA than any other style. For many, the first IPA was a defining moment in becoming a craft beer lover.
India pale ale was first brewed in England for export to the British colony in India. Pale ale was a popular beer, but the relatively mild form of it brewed in England would have never survived the trip to India. So they brewed a stronger, hoppier version to ship to India, a beer big enough to fight off infection and stay fresh. Alcohol and hops, it turns out, are both preservatives ... and two reasons why folks back in the day were more likely to drink beer than water, which spoiled easily.
Some English brewers still swear that IPA was actually brewed strong to save on shipping costs; ship three barrels of IPA, dilute it with clean water once it reaches India and presto: four barrels of pale ale. Maybe that's why English IPAs were low-alcohol, barely bitter beers in the 1980s, when American brewers came along and completely retooled IPA.
They fired it full of American-grown hybrid hops to give it a brisk citrus aroma and quenching bitterness, and began tweaking up the alcohol level. Surprise! After years of steadily decreasing hopping rates in the major American beers, there were people out there who wanted a certain amount of bitterness in their beer. And now they could find it. Bitterness whets the appetite, sets the salivary glands a-drooling and gives a dry, lip-smacking sensation in the mouth; it is one of the five flavors you can actually taste with your tongue alone. IPA hits you squarely on that bitter spot.
As more hop varieties have become available, brewers have used their varying aromas and bittering characteristics to create "single-hop" IPAs, a beer equivalent of varietal wines. IPAs have grown steadily more bitter as beer lovers' palates have evolved over the past 15 years. The standards grew bigger and recently morphed into "double" or "imperial" IPAs, high-alcohol monster trucks in a glass that's as bitter as a bad divorce.
Even a "plain" IPA can be a bracing experience for the novice, and this beer shows no signs of losing popularity.
Past lessons at Sam Adams University: