By Lee Reiherzer
India Pale Ale, or IPA for short, is a brew that few beer enthusiasts remain neutral about. The bitter, aromatic ale tends to divide drinkers into two camps. Some love the style for the bold, complex flavors that brewers are able to create by spicing their beer with whopping doses of hops. Others shun these ales, describing them as harsh, overbearing and undrinkable. Regardless of your point of view, there’s no denying that IPA has become the signature style of American craft beer.
The modern IPA trend in this country began in the early 1980s on the West Coast. It was a slow building wave, but by the late 1990s most U.S. ale brewers had at least one IPA in their portfolio. By the early 2000s, sales of IPA were trending sharply upwards and today it’s the most popular craft-beer style in America.
In Oshkosh, we weren’t so quick to pick up on the IPA current. Perhaps it’s our long association with maltier styles of lager beer that kept us from being early adopters. But that’s changing. A noticeable drift towards hoppier styles of beer has emerged here.
Shawn O’Marro started noticing the shift about three years ago. His pub, O’Marro’s Public House, opened in Oshkosh in 2004 and from its inception, the draught line-up there has regularly featured IPAs. “We used to always rotate IPAs in and out, but for about the past three years I’ve always had at least one, if not two, IPAs on,” O’Marro says. “We’ve seen a lot more people coming into the pub looking for and expecting IPAs. We don’t have to try and sell people on them anymore. Now they come in asking for them and telling us about them.” One of those they’ve been asking for is Big A IPA from Smuttynose Brewing. O’Marro’s will showcase the beer with a release party on Friday, May 9.
But for all the new acceptance, IPA is still a beer that can be difficult for drinkers unaccustomed to the style’s bitter punch. “You have to be careful,” O’Marro says. “I never try to take a crossover drinker from something like say a Spotted Cow over to an IPA. If you give them a big hoppy beer at that point, they might never try another one. You have to get them to try to appreciate a broader flavor profile before you hit them with an IPA.”
Kevin Bowen, the brewmaster for Fox River Brewing Company in Oshkosh, sees broadening the local palate as part of his job. “As the only craft brewery to Oshkosh, I have been working a bit more to try some education about hops with our current lineup,” Bowen says. “We are currently serving three hop-forward beers, each featuring different hops and a different balance. Each of these beers represents how hops can be appreciated on different levels.”
Achieving that distinctive interplay of flavors is the key. “What makes an IPA great is when it showcases American hops in a wonderfully assertive, but pleasant way,” Bowen says. “With just enough bitterness to compliment the malt and alcohol body and the overall hop presence.”
Bowen says the continuing evolution of the style remains part of its appeal. “The American IPA has grown from the crafting and cultivation of new hop varieties,” He says. “New varieties have brought new flavor. The key in the end, though, is to be the one that takes that new flavor and perfectly showcases it, avoiding a cluttered mess.”
When Bowen talks of the style evolving, he knows whereof he speaks. The story of IPA has been unfolding for centuries. The often-repeated myth of this beer is that it was invented in the latter half of the 1700s by a London brewer named Hodgson, who was trying to create a beer that could survive the long passage to India by ship. The truth isn’t quite that simple. English brewers had been successfully exporting beer to India for decades before anything we would now recognize as an IPA was brewed. But they had realized that an additional charge of hops, as they are a natural preservative, would help to extend the life of their beers. So they sometimes fortified their export beers with additional hops to ensure that it reached its destination in salable condition.
These well-hopped beers began to be advertised as being made expressly for the India market and by the 1820s, a distinct style of beer was emerging. It was dry, strong, very pale, and intensely bitter. By the 1840s, the term India Pale Ale was being commonly used to denote this specific type of beer.
India Pale Ale grew increasingly popular throughout the 19th century, and not just in India. It developed into an international style; its brewing was widespread. In fact, by the early 1880s, IPAs were even being produced in Wisconsin at the Lott Brewery in Janesville. The beer fell on hard times, though, with the turn of the century. Grain shortages resulting from WWI coupled with the increasing popularity of lager beer led to a decline in IPA brewing. But the beer continued to maintain a devoted, niche audience. When craft brewers latched onto the style in a serious way in the early 2000s, they began brewing it with the piney, resinous hops that flourish in the American Northwest. The flavor of these “New World” hops has come to be the defining character of the modern style.
Back at the Fox River Brewing Company, Kevin Bowen says he enjoys the challenge of creating something new within this framework that seems to be timeless. “IPA has been one of my favorite styles since I started brewing,” he says. His affinity expresses itself in words that sound not unlike something a British brewer might have said about the emergent beer 200 years ago. “It is a style of taste and grace.”ν
Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com