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Friday, August 05, 2016

IPAs as National Tradition

It is sometimes hard to appreciate the phenomenon of American brewing while experiencing it first hand. It's far more enlightening to travel to Copenhagen or Dublin, as I did earlier this year. In both places, you find good beer bars and breweries that function as perfect facsimiles for the ones you find in the US. From inside a Mikkeller or Galway Bay pub it's nearly impossible to tell that you're not in, say, Brooklyn.

One of the strangest experiences on my visit to Dublin was bar-hopping with John "The Beer Nut," and stopping off in one of those Galway Bay pubs for a pour of their double IPA, Of Foam and Fury. John's craft beer organization Beoir voted it the best beer in Ireland, and yet it was absolutely indistinguishable from an American double IPA. It is an bizarre experience to travel to one of the world's most famous beer-drinking cities, one I have revered distantly my whole life, and find that the brewers there are imitating the beers I buy a two-minute walk from my home.

A taplist in Copenhagen

The point is that it's difficult to appreciate how massive America's impact on world brewing trends are right now, or to see what "American" means unless you view it in a world context. After yesterday's post, I got a fair bit of feedback on Twitter and via email that makes me think these facts could do with a bit more elaboration.

IPA is Shorthand for the American Tradition
The countries (or sometimes regions) that have given rise to the myriad beer styles that we still brew all have certain characteristics in common: they make beer from unique ingredients and use  distinctive or unique brewing techniques. British ales use certain barley, yeasts, and hops, and are packaged on cask. Belgians use sugar and bottle condition. Czechs use distinctive barley and hops and decoction mashing.

And Americans? We have very distinctive local hops, and we have developed ways of brewing that maximize the flavor and aroma potential of these hops.* Many people have commented that all you have to do is slap "IPA" on a beer and it will sell, and the result is that we have a ton of substyles that are confusing and unnecessary and make the term "IPA" meaningless. I would argue the opposite. That word is a designator for an approach to brewing--the American approach. Just like "Belgian" is an adjective as much for a philosophy of brewing rather than a portfolio of styles, we should think of IPA now almost like an adjective for American brewing.

The influence is profound. Just in recent days I have mentioned how a Bavarian-born and -trained brewer dry-hopped his decocted maibock with Citra hops and how Germans now consider dry-hopping kosher according to Reinheitsgebot. I wrote about how Japanese brewing might one day develop into its own thing--though now they're making a lot of American IPAs. When Patrick and I were at Zoiglhaus recording our forthcoming podcast, German-trained brewer Alan Taylor mentioned how he adds Magnum hops in the whirlpool in one of his German beers (can't recall if it was the kolsch, the helles, or the North-German style pils he makes). Czechs are making IPAs, Mexicans are making IPAs, and now we'll see if Berliners can be persuaded to drink IPAs. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

Belgians have something in common with Americans in that they are keen to brew beers from other regions. But these inevitably go through a cultural filter so that the beers that come out the other side look only Belgian and nothing like the beers that inspired them. Americans certainly can brew straight German lagers or British bitters, but they tend not to. Instead, they usually dose their beers, like Taylor did, with more hops along the way. All these different IPAs are the manifestation of breweries who have adopted a way of thinking about and making beer, and who apply them to everything from 4.5% to 10% beers and pale to black beers (with everything in between).

Styles definitely change and mutate. Very few of the beer styles made today look like the version of that style made fifty or a hundred years ago. And national traditions mutate, as well. Germany, where decoction was invented, has been quietly moving away from the practice. I have no doubt that American hoppy ales will continue to evolve and change.

What I would not expect is a move away from the intensely flavorful hops we grow, nor the techniques brewers have developed to goose them. And this is largely because Americans have gotten so excited about these beers. In fact, the rise of the modern IPA and the supercharged growth of breweries entering the market happened at the same time. (When IPAs became the best-selling beer in 2011, there were about 1800 US breweries; five years later there are over 4600). I'd argue this is no coincidence.

And all of this is highlighted by the way American IPAs are being brewed around the world. They are precise imitations of our own IPAs, using the same ingredients and processes. To the brewers making those beers, these are manifestly new and unique, unlike anything on the market. IPAs were once a British style, but go buy a bottle of Samuel Smith's India Ale and taste test it against a Breakside or Gigantic. You will rediscover the Americanness in that experiment.

*Pedant note. Yes, it's true Americans did not invent the basic practices of post-kettle hopping and dry-hopping. But they have never been used the way the Americans are using them--particularly since Americans continue to develop these techniques (hop torpedoes etc) in ways that are new embellishments to crank up the aromas. Czechs did not invent decoction mashing, either, but their embrace and development of its use is now distinctly Czech.


  1. That word is a designator for an approach to brewing--the American approach.
    I don't disagree with this, but I also don't think it's a good thing and it should be challenged at every opportunity. It leads to a dismissal of IPAs that pre-date the American IPA revival, those which don't meet its specification, as "not IPA" which I think is a huge disservice to the history and tradition of IPA brewing.

    Greene King IPA is an IPA, as is Well's Eagle. Slapping "IPA" on their clips does not signal an American approach and the drinker has no right to be annoyed when they can't taste one.

  2. I'm cool with that and have no opinion. The horse has not only left the barn, he's led a long and productive life and died of old age. Dunno how to reel it back in. I encounter very few Americans who know anything about the history of this beer (though they must all wonder what the hell that "India" is all about).

  3. They should be called APAs. American Pale Ales.

  4. The "IPA-ization" of beer is so similar to the rise of Pilsner over 100 years ago it is scary. And to be quite frank, I've tasted more poor IPA and their ilk than good. I don't see this trend as a good thing.