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India Pale Ale: Explained!

Originally Posted: May 31, 2007

Lon S. Cohen

Every elementary school kid learns that necessity is the mother of invention. Never was there a truer statement when talking about a particular style of beer called India Pale Ale. One particular innovation stands head and shoulders above the rest in world history, one that solved the problem of how to get beer to English soldiers in the newly colonized country of India.

Just imagine yourself in the middle of India with all this great food around and no good bottle of suds to wash it down with. All the beer shipped from England arrived sour and flat. There was no good way to keep the stuff from spoiling on the long boat journey that took them south across the equator, round the Cape of Good Hope, and then back up to points east in India. This was a months long journey through a variety of climates and if there was any good beer on the ship it was most likely imbibed by the sailors before they reached Africa.

That was until George Hodgson, a brewer at the Bow Brewery in London, came up with a brilliant idea. In those days before the invention of refrigeration the only way to preserve beer was through the addition of alcohol and hops to destroy the microbes that made beer go bad. The technical details are beyond the scope of this article but the resulting product was a called a Pale Ale because the formula produced amber colored beer that was much lighter than the British porters. "India" referred to the East India Trading Company that shipped the beer and of course the destination to soldiers and civilians. Coincidentally, India Pale Ale goes well with spicy food because the strong taste cuts right through the spices. Let's call it a win/win for everyone involved.

The hops add bitterness to the taste of the beer that is sometimes referred to as a "hoppy" flavor. The alcohol, well, we all know what the alcohol does. It's the bite, and the part that makes beer really worth drinking. To my knowledge no one has even bothered to think about making a non-alcoholic IPA. Seems like a pointless endeavor, like pushing a rock uphill only to have it eternally roll back down again. What's the use? You never get anywhere. Or perhaps a better analogy is that it's like watching a daytime drama or listening to Celine Dion. You have the sense that there is some substance, but you never really get any satisfaction out of the experience. It just seems bland and goes on, and on, and on. And on.

Let's fast-forward our beer timeline to the current day. It's a beautiful afternoon in the Hamptons. My mouth is watering as I enter the Southampton Publick House to drink a couple of Southampton IPA beers with Charlie Sullivan, Director of Sales, and Phil Markowski, Brew Meister and author of the book, "Farmhouse Ales." The Brew Meister here literally wrote the book on beer! Gotta love the Hamptons, right?

Their website says that the IPA is "an authentic English-style amber ale with a unique character that comes from a special blend of five hop varieties and the use of imported English malts." So far, so good. If you regularly drink flavored-water, like most of the generic American brands of lager (or known to some as fizzy, yellow American beer) then you will be blown away by the taste of an IPA.

Brew Meister Phil uses a proprietary blend of six American Style Hops to create the Southampton beer. In my mind I think of a mad scientist who will stop at nothing to protect his formula, and in a sense, that's exactly how it is. Different microbreweries have their own brew master who makes a specific blend of IPA (among other types of beers but we will refer only to IPAs here). And there are many of them.

Festivals and fairs provide venues for brew masters at many of the microbreweries around the country to show off their blends to the fans and their peers. And just like wine connoisseurs, beer lovers are not just a bunch of drunken fools. Think of it like the mathematic equivalent of how to qualify a square. Some beer connoisseurs are a bunch of drunken fools but not all drunken fools are beer connoisseurs. Get it?

To further complicate the culture surrounding India Pale Ales, there is even an East-West competition similar to, but not exactly like, the phenomenon in rap music. According to Charlie and Phil there are two philosophies on drinking an IPA. On the West Coast the trend is to make the beer with as many hops and as much alcohol as possible. Like some macho game, these uber IPA beers are meant to be drunk for the thrill of it and the head rush, like bungee jumping. On the East Coast, we like things a little more reserved. Though an IPA will always be higher in hops and alcohol, Phil agrees with the mentality that a beer is meant to be drunk over the long term for taste, not an adrenaline rush.

Side Note: This is called "Session Drinking" according to the guys at Southampton Publick House. It's drinking beer over a longer term like lunch, dinner, and evening, golf, movie, library tour, and possibly while visiting elderly relatives. It's an English concept. Go English! Love them, love the music, love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and love their style of drinking.

The Southampton Publick House's IPA is less bitter (less hoppy) and has a lower alcohol content than other IPA beers found on the West Coast, but you still get that hoppy flavor and bite of alcohol. It's tolerable enough to enjoy more than just one.

Admittedly, sometimes you just need to blow the doors off. Like many things in life, drinking an IPA is an acquired taste, like coffee. Once you get the taste you want to enjoy it in a variety. Southampton Publick House produces a solid IPA that I enjoy. It's not middle of the road at all but it's also not going to blow away a regular drinker.

For that you need to go over the top and get yourself something along the lines of a Stone Brewery IPA in either the Arrogant Bastard or Ruination label, which is a West Coast brewery. I also enjoy Dogfish Ale's 90 minute and 120 minute IPA beers. Then there is always Sierra Nevada. This is a basic beginner's India Pale Ale and the one I first started drinking, a good IPA for the uninitiated. You can move up from there. Another locally brewed favorite of mine is Blue Point Brewery's cool sounding Hoptical Illusion IPA.

So there you have it. The answer to the question I have been asked ever since I snuck that line into my bio below. Remember that when you come to my house for the next Texas Hold 'Em tournament or barbeque. Think IPA. You can't really go wrong.

Southampton Publick House brews a variety of year-round beers and some special seasonal brews. Their Double White (not an IPA) is gaining popularity and their beers can be found in ten states. Phil Markowski has been the Brew Meister since 1996 and is the author of "Farmhouse Ales," a book about Belgian Style Ales.

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