You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Monday, August 04, 2014

How the Word "India" Came to Mean "American"

Last week, I ordered a pint of Gigantic's new beer, IPL, sight unseen.  I was at a pub that listed nothing but the name.  A few minutes later, the waiter dropped a glass of something pilsner-pale and conditioned-clear in front of me.  I had assumed--correctly, it emerged--that the name of the beer stood for "India Pale Lager."  The beer in front of me had almost nothing to do with IPA, though.  Indeed, I later discovered that Ben and Van (brewmaster and master brewer) also call it a "Northwest pilsner," and it's a lot closer to a pils than anything to do with English or American ales.  It's 5.6%, has a pilsner malt bill, and is, not unimportantly, a lager.

During that same session--possibly just after the arrival of the Gigantic--one of my friends complained that IPA no longer had any meaning at all.  He ticked off the various offenses against a once-knowable style: black IPAs, white IPAs, lagered IPAs, session IPAs, fruit IPAs.  (He actually ordered a rye and double IPA that night.)  It had nothing to do with the original IPAs and has devolved into little more than a marketing gimmick, he argued reasonably.

As someone who has complained about this very phenomenon, I should have been sympathetic, but here's the thing: to the average drinker, slapping the word "India" on a label communicates a very specific, easily-understandable meaning.  It's shorthand for "saturated in the flavors and aromas of American hops."  Gigantic IPL, for all the ways it wasn't an IPA, instantly met the expectations I'd had--it was decadently perfumed and soaked in Simcoe and Citra hops.

Beer taxonomists and history prescriptivists miss this truth that is so obvious to the casual drinker.  The qualities that separate the 19th century English originals--or the middle 20th century English or even late 20th century American versions--from these myriad permutations (Belgian, black, imperial, etc.) are vast.  But that's because there's now a contemporary definition and it does a pretty good job of characterizing things.

Until something like thirty years ago, the hoppy beers typical in American brewpubs today did not exist.  There were hoppy beers, but they didn't have the kind of hopping Americans now use--which is partly a function of the method but mostly a function of the hops themselves.  And those qualities, begotten by vigorous kettle hopping and profligate late and dry-hopping of American hops, is what "India" (or "IPA" or "IP-whatever") now refers to.  It's sort of like the catch-all term "Belgian," which means anything with vivid yeast character but can be applied to any imaginable style (except, I suppose, lagers).  One of the great revelations of my foreign travel was to see that this shorthand was well-understood by breweries in the UK, Italy, and the Czech Republic.  "American IPA" or "American-style" always meant super-hopped with American hops, whatever the beer style.

I've stopped overthinking this.  Breweries want customers to know what the beer is going to taste like.  If they attach the word "India" to it--whether it is just a hoppy pilsner or witbier or stout--customers know what they mean.  It's pedantic to insist that there's something wrong with how this artifact of language has evolved.

20 comments:

Alan said...

What makes you need to go to "overthinking" and "pedantic"? With respect, it's not like the point is such a revelation. Just marketing speak for a generic hoppiness that the buyer still has to determine if they like or not given its broad use.

Jeff Alworth said...

I dunno--what makes a blogger go into anything? Maybe you don't hear grumbling about the use of IPA for so many different kinds of beers (or maybe it isn't used for so many different kind of beers), but I do.

I would disagree that it's marketing-speak. It's real communication, and something customers understand.

Alan said...

Marketing speak isn't bad but it is only what it is. Was there a brewers association seminar years back on the idea like there have been on manufacturing scarcity and inflation? Don't know. I like the idea that it is code for American style but just mean the opposite of your idea isn't pedantic. It's just not a topic for that "mark of Zorro" concluding flourish.

Jeff Alworth said...

Alan, two things. First, I didn't write the post you would have written, and I'm happy to disagree about that. Blogs are that way. The second point is that I think you're too quick to attribute it to marketspeak. We have 50+ breweries in this town, most of which have no PR people. There are hundreds of beers on the market, and each one fights for tap handles and shelf space. Breweries have to communicate, in a glance, what is inside a bottle of their beer, and slapping "IPA" or some variant on it does exactly that.

Alan said...

I think "agree to disagree" only gets grown ups so far. I agree with you on the effect of IPA but, appreciating we differ in degree, still suspect market control. The effect is live with me as I faced yesterday was a mess of style references and reached for the comfort of stouts and IPAs. I disagree firmly that this somehow represents the pedantic and overthinking in those who disagree for no other reason than you simply have not made the case for that broad a conclusion. It is a tempting idea but still not Zorro-esque.

Pete Dunlop said...

I think India is pure marketing speak. Sure it means something to consumers. Beyond that it means nothing. Soon we'll be talking about India Porters and Stouts. That, to me, is a joke.

Jeff Alworth said...

You and Alan are cranky old farts.

Jeff Alworth said...

Which I say with affection.

Alan said...

XOXO!!!

Bailey said...

As usual, I find myself on the fence: it's worth fighting for words to retain their meaning but, equally, when the battle's lost, continuing to carp is a waste of time, and makes one seem a bore.

We (Boak and I) really wanted 'craft beer' in the UK to mean 'interesting beer including cask ale' but, increasingly, it means 'interesting beer that isn't "real ale"'. So it goes.

DavidS said...

I think it's interesting and useful to be pedantic about the historical meaning of a term at a given point in time (as with Martyn Cornell's heroic efforts), but it's also pretty much inevitable that terms will change their meaning over time, and provided the current meaning is reasonably useful then I've got no problem with that.

And yes, "India" or "India Pale" currently describes a product in a way that gives the consumer a decent idea of what they're getting. If people want to call that "marketing speak" then they're probably saying more about their personal prejudices than they are about the brewing industry.

Alistair Reece said...

"Soon we'll be talking about India Porters and Stouts. That, to me, is a joke."

It's an old joke then, East India Porter was being brewing way back in the late 18th, early 19th century for the British troops to drink, India Pale Ale was for the officer class (maybe that is why it became so popular with yuppie beer drinkers, it was the posh drink rather than the working man's tipple? that's a random, throw away, comment before anyone starts picking up on my socio-economic history failings).

Alistair Reece said...

"It's sort of like the catch-all term "Belgian," which means anything with vivid yeast character but can be applied to any imaginable style (except, I suppose, lagers)."

Ironic then that the best selling Belgian beer in the world is a lager.

Rich Isaacs said...

Is that a misprint or is something labeled India Pale Lager not actually a lager? That seems more bizarre than applying India to everything.

Jeff Alworth said...

Rich, where's the misprint?

Alistair, point taken. But mass market lagers outsell local products in every country. (Germany's a special case.) When we say a beer tastes Belgian, I don't think anyone is confused that we're referring to Stella.

DaveS said...

I think Rich is reading "and is, not unimportantly, a lager." to mean something like "it's not a lager, but that's not important" rather than "it is a lager, and that is important".

Rich Isaacs said...

Yep, I was misreading that. Was super confused as a result. My bad.

Jeff Alworth said...

Sometimes I chance a grammatical unnecessity like that double-negative because I like how it sounds. Or a neologism like "unnecessity."

Daniel Warner said...

Agreed on part of the point, but I think in less beer savvy parts of the country, the "india" part of IPA just isn't meaningful. I heard someone explain it to someone else at a new craft beer store in SC. The places to see what the average person knows are not Portland, Austin, Asheville.

To that end I think "IPA" really is synonymous for a very specific thing. I would not be surprised to see "Black IPA" take over outside the narrow band of beer advocate snobs who prefer "cascadian dark ale" (which will never, ever, EVER catch on).

It wouldn't surprise me to eventually see an "IPA Lager" on the shelf, though I can just imagine the screeching that would occur with that one.

pp said...

You think it's bad in the US, pity the country which invented IPA and still clings to the "original" idea of it but which also is influenced heavily by US usage. There's a significant but far from universal move in the UK to use "American Pale Ale" for the fruit bombs, which I think is helpful - it also allows some wiggle room for the similar-but-different beers using antipodean hops. Also APA can be applied to the fruit bombs with lower ABV that are more common in the UK.

On IPL - Freedom brewed one as a special this year which is going into their core range as East India Pale. Brewed with the 3C's, they also do a Simcoe lager as a special.

Post a Comment