Monday, 11 June 2012

When is an IPA not an IPA?

I’ll be the first to admit the title of this post is slightly misleading because what I’ve been thinking about over the last few weeks is how several of the beers I’ve drank recently should have been classed as an IPA but they haven’t mentioned those three immortal little letters on their label. With modern craft IPA being such a beer du jour it should make sense that in order to sell more of your beer you should print those three letters in a giant font on your label in order to suck in hop perverts like myself. Not all brewers are in it for the money (although it’s surely a motivational aspect of your chosen career) but it seems to be absolutely essential for craft breweries to include a well hopped IPA in their resume.

Plenty of room on this label for three more letters
Take, just as an example, New Belgium in the USA. They specialise in producing modern and very Americanised takes on classic Belgian styles of beer but one of their best sellers is Ranger which is an incredibly well hopped IPA. Now correct me if I’m wrong but last time I checked those funky Belgian monks weren’t chucking armfuls of Cascade and Chinook into their mash tuns. Unsurprisingly Ranger sells very well, it’s a fantastic beer and no doubt some of the revenue this beer generates funds their more experimental brews such as Biere de Mars and La Folie.

The modern style of IPA, heavily dry-hopped with lashings of American hops is without question my favourite style of beer, I could drink it all day long and quite often do. After drinking the two beers I’m going to look at during the course of this blog my mind cogs started whirring, they definitely had all the qualities of a solid IPA but they don’t play on this fact in order to shift more units. Perhaps their brewmasters do not consider these beers to be IPAs, maybe they are off-kilter or perhaps something else entirely? When you think about it, when does pale ale become India pale ale? Surely this is indicated by an ABV of at least 5.5% or above (if it’s not been watered down of course) and has been well hopped to ‘survive its journey across the ocean’. Of course much of the IPA we drink today hasn’t been brewed to survive an arduous ocean journey, we just like the way it tastes, so why the hell do we still label it with the word India when that doesn’t really have a great deal of association with this beer in it’s modern form. Of course it would be incredibly bold and very wrong of me to dismiss centuries of brewing history with one swing of a stick but have you ever though just how relevent the IPA tag really is in modern brewing?

Of course it says IPA so that beer lovers like us can find the beers WE want to drink, for me those three little letters simply indicate that this might just be another great beer waiting to be discovered. The first of the two beers I’m going to devour during the course of this article fails to mention this anywhere obvious on it’s simple yet incredibly effective label and that beer is Marble Dobber. It was down to the recommendation of others that I discovered the Marble brewery who unlike many of their fellow Northern Craft Brewers seem to shun mass social networking and their website gives very little information away. If you Google any Marble beer you are met not with a well designed and thoughtful website but instead with a plethora of blogs that almost unanimously sing their praise and it is because of us, the bloggers that Marble have gained such a stalwart reputation.

The first couple of Marble beers I had were very enjoyable, I really like their Lagonda IPA and their Chocolate Stout is one of my favourite examples of that style but it was when I finally got hold of my first bottle of Dobber that Marble gained a special place in my heart. I’m sure many of you reading this (in the UK at least) will have tried and loved Dobber, it leaps out of the bottle lively as anything, smacks you round the face with huge chunks of pineapple, heaving great slabs of mango and hides almost all but a smidgen of booze which lingers in the back of your throat as you swallow. In a decades time we will still be drinking this beer with hushed reverence, it’s a beautifully British example of a modern craft IPA, or is it? For me it most definitely is, it has all the hallmarks that make craft IPAs great, huge hops on a massive malt backbone perfectly balanced and dangerously drinkable. Would it be even more popular if the minimalist pea-green label said Dobber IPA?

That little red bastard owl stole my wallet
I am a man of simple mind, I am easily taken in when a selection of cool ‘n’ kooky new beers shimmy into town and this was most definitely the case when Hitachino Nest beers arrived in the UK. I immediately fell in love with that little owl and had to procure some of their beers, if I was quick enough I could maybe blog about them before anyone else and how cool would that be! When I did finally get hold of some I thought of how silly I had been and decided, like with most of the beer I drink to just enjoy it, by myself, in the comfort of my own home. I often wonder if the Internet really needs to know of each and every beer I consume complete with ‘arty’ photo taken on Instagram. I know some of you like it, and I love seeing what other people are drinking but I can’t help but feel that many of my non-beery mates are simply baffled by this activity. So sometimes I don’t tell the Internet what I’m drinking, but that’s not because I don’t love you all very much, it’s because it still sometimes feels a little bit silly.

So I wasn’t going to blog about the quite frankly excellent beers from Hitachino Nest but I felt that their Nipponia was quite suited to this post, in fact it probably inspired it. This well malted and well hopped brew uses the Kaneki Golden barley malt and the now world renowned Sorachi Ace hop. Nipponia is simply described on its label as ‘ale’ and weighs in at a reasonable 6.5% ABV but are we in IPA territory? Well if American breweries can use all American ingredients and describe a beer as an IPA and if British breweries can use all British ingredients and describe a beer as an IPA then why can’t the Japanese?

Nipponia pours a very pale gold colour and produces a nice creamy head that leaves a ring of foam around the edge of the glass. It has a pungent nose of jasmine, melon and elderflower with just a hint of caramel and has some lively carbonation going on in the glass. For me the Sorachi Ace hop provides a very herbal almost medicinal flavour which is very much present in this beer but there are also hints of lemongrass and lychee with the malt tasting of rice cakes that have been dipped  brown sugar. The finish is bone dry, the beer is wonderfully refreshing and despite the slightly medicinal taste I was left begging for another sip. It’s a quintessentially Japanese take on a style of beer that is dominated by brews from the US and the UK (not forgetting a certain Danish Gypsy brewer of course) but once again I ask the question, is this beer an IPA?

If this beer wanted to be an IPA and it wore that badge proudly on its label then I would accept it as an IPA but Nipponia refuses to be labelled as such, standing it’s own ground despite sharing so many similarities with the style. Is IPA a deserving genre of beer of its own or is it merely a label that has been bastardised by breweries with huge marketing departments and then lovingly adopted by the craft beer scene as the sign of a truly great beer. Realistically it doesn’t really matter how a brewery wants to label its beer, as long as they are brewing good shit then I’ll continue to throw money at it and drink into the night with reckless abandon.

21 comments:

  1. 6.5% minimum for an IPA in my opinion

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    1. So do you think something like Brewdog Punk shouldn't be branded as an IPA? Do you think it's false advertising?

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  2. I think Punk just got away with being an IPA when it was 6%

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    1. So would you class it just as a pale ale then?

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  3. (US) West Coast/American Pale Ale

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  4. "Now correct me if I’m wrong but last time I checked those funky Belgian monks weren’t chucking armfuls of Cascade and Chinook into their mash tuns"

    Happy to oblige - quite a few of them are these days (well, not the monks obviously, but more and more brewers are).

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    1. Hi John

      Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment on my blog, I'm sorry to see that you disagree with some of the things I've written about but I guess that is the beauty of opinion, if we all agreed on everything then there would be no point in people like us writing about it. I would be honoured if such luminaries as Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell read my blog, I had a massive amount of respect for the both of them and even if they disagreed with me I'd be happy to debate the subject further with them!

      I would just like to publish the following quote from the blog article you linked to:

      "True, records show that IPAs exported about 150 years ago broadly ranged from about 5.5% to 7% alcohol."

      I admit that, as you did with my comment about the Belgian monks, I have taken it out of context but I think for the purposes of this discussion it's a very important sentence. I think we can all agree though, that the real winner here is IPA, in your article you list many beers I love so I'm glad to see we both have excellent taste!

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    2. I don't think I took your comments about Belgian beer out of context - it seemed pretty clear what you were saying there. The point I was making it that there is a lot going on in Belgian (and Dutch) brewing these days that seems to be passing many UK beer geeks and bloggers by (is it because they are so caught in the headlights of what is happening in the USA that they can't see what's going on rather closer to home?). Hop forward IPAs and other beers are a case in point - and I would argue that quite often they are executed with rather more style and finesse that is managed by many micros in the US.

      As for mid-19th Centuiry IPAs - it's a matter of historic record how strong they were then. The point is they were not strong in the context of the beer scene at that time. All UK beers have evolved and it amuses me to see that while people seem happy to judge the authenticity of IPAs by reference to their mid-19th century parameters that consideration doesn't seem to apply to other beer styles. I think Bailey has nailed it here - in the UK at any rate there are various distinct beer styles, all authentic IPAs in one way or another but all very different beers in the glass. It can perhaps make ordering an unknown IPA something of a lottery.

      ASs you say though - we clearly both appreciate good beer and that's the main thing (by the way look out for the forthcoming RedWillow Remorseless - 7.8% double IPA, bone dry, hopped to buggery and 200 IBUs - bit of a monster I reckon).

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    3. I'll be the first to admit that I am one of those UK bloggers that has had their imagination captured by the US brewing scene but if you read this blog I wrote back March (http://totalales.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/birth-of-beer-geek.html) then you might understand why that's been the case for me.

      I haven't been blogging for very long but it's through my love for US craft beer that I have discovered the wealth of incredible British and European beer that is available. In fact I'd go so far as to say that the best beer in the world is currently being brewed in Britain by the likes of Thornbridge, Summer Wine, Kernel, Magic Rock etc.

      Relatively speaking I'm still pretty new to 'craft' beer and bar some of the obvious names like Mikkeller and some of the traditional ones such as Orval and Brasserie Dupont I'm still yet to discover the wealth of new beer that Europe has to offer. However I'm spending next weekend in Bruges so I'd love it if you could recommend some modern Belgian beers to seek out while I'm there!

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    4. Well then. Since you are in Bruges you will want to check out the Struise shop and tasting room on Burg. While they are mainly into the barrel/oak aged schtick they have also started a range of single hop beers - worth a try I think. Otherwise check out De La Senne, Jandrain-Jandrenouille, Het Alternatief (Bittere Waarheid is a good 'un), Musketeers (Troubadour Magma is one to check but the new Imperial Stout impresses), Den Triest, De Ranke (look out for Hop Harvest and Hop Flower Power), De Dochter van de Korenaar ( Belle-Fleur is the accomplished IPA but also look out to Oak Aged Embrasse and the new Charbon - a vanilla infused dry stout), Belgoo ( Magus, Arbo and the new Saisonekke), Viven (notably the smoked porter and imperial IPA), Achouffe Houblon (double IPA), and should you come across anything by Brouwers Verzet give it a go as it should certainly be interesting. I suppose I should also mention Alvinne who do all sorts of hoppy and/or barrel aged stuff but for me they never quite hit the mark. Hope this helps

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    5. Just thinking on - the De Ranke beers you are most likely to come across are XX Bitter and Guldenburg. Give them a go as well.

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    6. Thanks for the advice John, I'll be sure to check those out while I'm there!

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  5. Oh, and by the way, don't let the likes of Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell catch you repeating that old cobblers about IPA having to be such and such a strength to be "authentic" or indeed even be an IPA in the first place. My ramblings on the subject can be found here:

    http://www.portstreetbeerhouse.co.uk/blog/india-pale-ale-by-john-clarke

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  6. I'm not talking about "Authentic" IPA just my opinion on the modern style.

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  7. This is something we've written about a few times: the distinction between a term as used historically; and as used by modern day consumers.

    IPA is the most confusing of all because, quite apart from the various historical definitions (post World War I? Victorian? 1960s?) there are at least three types of IPA, all legitimately using the name, on the market today: the weak, brown cask IPA; the 5%-ish English IPA (e.g. Bengal Lancer); and the US-influenced 'big' IPA.

    Order an IPA expecting one type and get another and you'll feel cheated.

    Within a given brewer's range, I reckon the IPA, *these days*, ought to be hoppier than their bitter/pale ale, but that's about it in terms of 'rules'.

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    1. Exactly and the rules are there for the Brewer to break!

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  8. I agree, I've had too many beers that called themselves IPA but were no hoppier than an average bitter or pale ale.
    I've brewed Authentic (ish) IPA, it was 7% and very hoppy (English, European & US hops) dry hopped in the casks, I didn't really like it until it had matured and mellowed for 3 months, it was amazing at 2 years old and still tasted hoppier then some of the crappy brown sweet 4.5% IPA's I've had.

    but I prefer the fresh as you can get US style IPA's 6.5 - 8% with big aroma. that is what look for in an IPA.

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    1. That's also what I look for in an IPA Stuart, and I found it in North Bar today! :D

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  9. Good post. I'm all for stretching boundaries but it's annoying when something is labelled as one thing and completely fails to meet any expectations you have of a style; makes you feel cheated.

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    1. Thanks Gareth, glad you enjoyed it!

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