India Pale Ale (IPA)

I have been avoiding this one for while. I mean, what is an IPA, really? We all know the story: in the early 19th century, India was a British colony, so there were lots of British soldiers, bureaucrats, and businessmen there. They all wanted to drink beer, but beer wasn’t made in India, so it had to be sent from home, which meant a 4-month sea journey. In the 1820s, brewers, starting probably with Hodgson’s, realized that a slightly stronger beer, stuffed with a good amount of hops, matured fabulously on the ship with the rocking of the waves. Other brewers, notably Bass and Allsopp from Burton-on-Trent, soon caught on, and the style came to enjoy a great popularity at home as well as in the colony.

Taxes on malt during World War I ended up weakening the strength of IPAs until they were little more than bitters, but a revival came about in the 1970s and 80s in the USA. Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco is often credited with reviving the style with his Liberty Ale. Made for the American bicentennial, Liberty is well-hopped with the American varietal Cascade. While Liberty is not called an IPA, it set a new standard for fragrantly hoppy beer, pale in color, slightly strong, and cleanly bitter. Other American micro-brewers picked up on the idea, and before long, IPA became the style most identified with the American craft beer movement.

But how to define the style? That’s not so easy. Just think about the different kinds of IPAs out there. Alcohol-wise, there’s IPA, W-IPA, Imperial IPA, Triple IPA, and Session IPA. Geographically we have West Coast IPA, East Coast IPA, British IPA, Belgian IPA, Aussie IPA and Kiwi IPA. Visually we see Black IPA, White IPA, Red IPA, and Brown IPA. Then there is the IPL—India Pale Lager. We have Smoked IPA, Brett IPA, Rye IPA, and Barrel-Aged IPA; and Grapefruit, Yuzu, and every-other-fruit IPA. And of course any number of combinations of the above: Barrel-Aged Imperial Belgian Black Yuzu IPA? Someone’s probably made it.

So how can we call IPA a style?

What do all these beers have in common?

I’ve concluded that IPA is not a style at all. It is an attitude towards beer. And it has become the most popular attitude throughout the craft beer world: that hops are the most important part of the beer. The IPA, whatever the malts, water, or yeast used, must be supremely hoppy. The IPA is the hophead’s beer. You can choose your IPA depending on whether you like your hops in the aroma (added very late in the boil or as dry hopping), the flavor (added in the second half of the boil), or the finish (boiled a long time). It can have malt flavors of chocolate, caramel, biscuits, bread or crackers. It can be fruity like lemons, oranges, grapefruits, cherries, grapes, mango, pineapple, passion fruit, or durian. It can be bitter or sweet, or even sour. It will be hoppy, though, or it’s no IPA.

Japan is a good place to find a variety of IPAs: native examples, or imports from all over the world. Don’t know where to start? Here are some suggestions.

Start with Liberty Ale, as fresh as possible, to taste where many people say it all started. Then try some of the classic American examples: Stone IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute, Rogue Brutal IPA, Green Flash West Coast IPA, Ballast Point Sculpin.

Next move on to Japan’s offerings. Start with our classics: Baird Teikoku (American/British hybrid), Shiga Kogen IPA (bitter and grungy), Hitachino Nest JCA (aged in cedar), Iwate Kura (definitely British), Aqula Kiwi IPA (New Zealand hops!). After that, try several from Shonan’s Single Hop series. Follow those up with every IPA you can find from Y. Market and Thrash Zone. Both are masters of the hop. Then, for variety, North Island Grapefruit IPA and Swan Lake Belgian IPA. When you’re ready, move on to the stronger brews. Start with Minoh W-IPA, the first of its kind in Japan. Then Shiga Kogen House IPA and Baird Suruga Bay (my own personal favorites). Or if these are too strong for you, go for the Sessions (see my Summer 2014 column).

Next comes the rest of the world: Thornbridge from England, BrewDog from Scotland, Mikkeller from Denmark, De Molen from the Netherlands, 8 Wired from NZ, Brewfist from Italy, and Houblon Chouffe from Belgium. All these are available in Japan. For those who still need more, you’ll have to travel abroad to get yourself some Alpine, Russian River, Maine, Hill Farmstead, Kernel…
Did you get your fill of hops yet?

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All Beer Styles articles are written by Mark Meli, author of Craft Beer in Japan.

This article was published in Japan Beer Times #22 (Spring 2015) and is among the limited content available online. Order your copy through our online shop or download the digital version from the iTunes store to access the full contents of this issue.