Alas, Poor IPA! I Knew Him a Fellow Ale

Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Let me tell a tale often echoed by beer drinkers and brewers. Dating back to the 1600s, Britain played a large role in trade between England and India, specifically the British East Indies Company. When Britain started to gain a stronger political foothold in the area during the late 1700s, the number of soldiers stationed in India grew. However, their plight for good beer had been in the works for decades. Porters, the preferred beer of the masses back home, didnt fare too well over the long journey that crossed the equator twice, often leaving the beer stale and flat. Allsop brewery had the answer. Hop the beer heavily and the ale will be preserved. It worked, and when soldiers returned home, they demanded India Pale Ales (IPAs) be served. And so it was that the IPA came into fashion.

Think about how we live with a working knowledge of the Truth. To believe what is perceived is the necessity by which we go about our daily lives. Of course, Truths are often shattered, and the story above is no different.

There is much dispute about how the IPA came about, and we may have to bow to Ockhams Razor, a problem-solving principle which states that the theory with the least assumptions is likely the correct one. Sailors like to drink; soldiers like to drink. When a brewery tried something new, drinkers enjoyed something different and celebrated it. I doubt Porters lost their prestige in India even after the introduction of the IPA, though there will be contention there as well.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

To hit this point a little harder, the preservation properties of hops, though present, are not some miracle fix. Beers that are higher hopped arent going to survive longer than their maltier brethren. Major factors concerning a beers flavor over time involve how it is stored and contained. Light pollution and loss of pressure will surely hurt flavor in the long run, as will infection.

So what is an IPA? Sam Green, brewer at 3rd Sign in Waunakee, says, If you asked 10 or 20 years ago, the answer wouldve been a lot different. Nowadays, all the barriers of style are getting slowly and slowly eroded. Ryan Koga, brewmaster of Karben4, adds, I think IPAs in particular are the beauty is in the eye of the beer holder. Its subjective. Its like artwork. In fact, IPA has almost become a blanket term to mean hoppy. Most of the IPAs youve had are not IPAs. Consider that one of the most popular hops in IPAs is the Cascade hop, which wasnt created until 1971 at Oregon State University. Thats an American hop, my friends. American Pale Ale would be more fitting, but, as Sam said, the lines have eroded.

I want to go back to the tale of the IPA. If you were one of the people who loved this story and found something intriguing in the telling of it, that speaks to something very human. We have our idea of the past and how it created the world, and we hold pieces of that past close to our hearts. This lends itself to what we look for in something like an IPA. Ryan told me about how much he liked juice when he was little, and then he raved about his favorite IPA. I want it frickin juicy. I want a big bouquet up on my nose. I want it to be full, oily, citrusy on my mouth. And then I want a nice sweet kind of backbone to it that fights some of that bitterness and maybe masks a little bit of the alcohol. He goes on to discuss one of his favorite hops. For me, Citra is a great sound, like the most beautiful bass drum or snare youve ever heard. But you gotta have a full kit to play a rhythm. This is becoming a staple for what drinkers expect when they hear West Coast IPA.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Though I can certainly appreciate a juicy IPA, Im not the type of person to bite into a grapefruit and think juicy. Ive always preferred an IPA with a more-complex malt bill, as is closer to what an East Coast IPA tends to be, though they are still very much hop forward. Sam says, As far as malty backbone is concerned, usually what I like to see is a lot of wheat characteristic. I think that really emphasizes a lot of the hops. Maybe anywhere from 10 to 20 percent kind of accentuates that head retention mouth feel, really compliments a lot of that hop profile bitterness, kind of counteracts it just a little bit.

Everybodys on their own search to get the newest and greatest and most extreme, and I think its kind of not becoming great. There should be a new movement to get to representation of what used to happen. Thats just wishful thinkingits getting kind of out of control now. And thats true for the majority of breweries in the nation, but something is popping up now called the Midwest IPA. This works to balance the alpha acids of the hops with the sweetness of the malt in a more even fashion, typically leaving the hops as the hi-hat cymbal on the palate that plays in rhythm to the malt. They have the hop profile expected in IPAs, but that profile isnt necessarily center stage.

Historically speaking, Midwest IPAs are getting closer to what IPAs used to be alongside Session IPAs. Drinking an IPA wasnt a hot-sauce guzzling competition, but something to be enjoyed without worry of waking up the next morning in your neighbors flower garden spooning a rather attractive garden gnome. Call me a traditionalist, but Im looking forward to new-school brewing taking some tips from the old dogs. That isnt to say your preference for something with a bit more bite is wrong. Its the beer you dig. But when everyone is doing the same beer just to see how hoppy they can go, its not only uninteresting, its stagnant.

Heres to moving forward. Cheers!

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Check out Tokyo Sauna and Fantasy Factory from Karben4 and Hausgeist and Sauer Kirche from 3rd Sign.

Ryan Kogas favorite IPAs in the Midwest:

Surly Brewing Company

Revolution Brewing

Sam Greens favorite IPAs in Wisconsin:

MKE (one of the best in Wisconsin to date)
Central Waters

Other Wisconsin IPAs:

Lake Louie (A true-blood IPA)
Port Huron (A stand-up Midwest IPA)