IPA: What's The Big Deal? India Pale Ale a style which I think divides beer fans more than the commentariat like me let on. For a lot of the drinking public, the unsubtle blast of bitter citric hops is not desirable in a beer. Even among the IPA fanboys and girls there are often strict unwritten purity laws to be observed: too much crystal malt, not enough alcohol, too long a gap between brewing and drinking, or any combination thereof, and the beer is an insult to the drinker, the style and its pedigree. As the immortal Calvin once observed: “Ever notice how tense grown-ups get when they're recreating?”
I'm not delving into any of that for this post; instead, I'm going to be exploring IPA via the controlled environment produced by one Scottish brewer every year. BrewDog's IPA Is Dead is now in its third annual iteration. A four pack of IPAs is released, all made to an identical recipe except for the hops, with each beer utilising a single variety, cutting across brewing history and geography. The strength has been lowered for 2013, down to 6.7% ABV from 7.5 and definitely benefiting from the absence of an alcoholic heat which made previous years' editions heavy work. So perhaps that's lesson one when it comes to strong and hoppy: more alcohol isn't always your friend.
Next came the most complex of the set. A dank weedy aroma kicked things off and the flavour profile ran freely through the southern hemisphere hop playbook: medicine cupboard herbs, flint, green apple and even a little squirt of feline urine, but not in a bad way. It was a great beer to explore, to take time over and get lost in. Considered relaxed sipping is definitely an IPA virtue -- it ought not be a style for chugging. The hop here was Waimea, from New Zealand.
The third in the series was another dud. It started in a promising way with a lovely orange blossom nose but there was no sign of any orchard freshness when I tasted it. Instead there's just a sharp metallic clang over a musty staleness. I was in no doubt that this was Goldings, though a particularly poor example of it in action -- this English hop can be a stunner when on form. Ingredients which are true to the style's roots are no guarantee of quality, it seems.
The last was my favourite. Nowhere near as complex as the Waimea, but it did one thing and did it well. The aroma is understated, showing just a little grassiness but the flavour explodes in a mouth-watering burst of orange sherbet followed up with a lasting juicy peach sweetness. American C-hops are at work here, and the specific variety is a relatively new one: El Dorado. It will go far.
What have we learned? The massively predictable lesson is that US hops make for damn fine IPAs; only marginally less obvious is the fun that can be had with New Zealand hops, that you need to know precisely what you're doing when it comes to English varieties, and that there's some pretty weird stuff being grown in continental Europe. But the big lesson is one which can be applied to beer more generally, and that's the flexibility of IPA: even if only one ingredient is changed, IPA can offer a broad range of experiences. In a style that can vary from 3.6% ABV to 8% and beyond; from pale gold to dark copper, there is a lot to explore. To generalise about IPA is perhaps unwise.
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