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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Epistemology, Indian Pale Beer, and the Mutability of Style

Unless you have an open mind and are willing to abandon cherished notions, don't talk IPA with Martyn Cornell. If you trot out that old chestnuts that India pales were brewed strong and hoppy to survive the long trip to the subcontinent, that Hodgson's invented the style and started the practice, and that it was the only style of beer shipped there, Cornell will offer a tart 3,700-word rebuttal (and, incidentally, just one in a series):
This is a truly historic document: the first known use of the expression India Pale Ale. It comes from an advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper published January 30 1835, a remarkably long time after pale ale started being sold in India... The Liverpool Mercury ad has several points to note, apart from the first use of the phrase India Pale Ale, quite possibly a century or more after pale ale was first exported to India.
(Life is funny. Someone, somewhere started shipping tiny amounts of beer from Britain to what is now India as much as 40 years before a bunch of irritable separatists caused trouble in another colony across the North Atlantic. Little could anyone have imagined that nearly 300 years later a rather different style of beer would be brewed in that colony and take the country by storm. Of all the beer styles that have come and gone in the intervening centuries, would anyone have given odds that "IPAs" would be the favorite style of the brewing renaissance in 2010?)

Martyn's complaint has always seemed to have less to do with beer than epistemology. He seems irritated not that a pale, hoppy, strong ale might have been shipped to India by Hodgson's in the early 1700s (to be drunk by, say, one of my favorite Indologists, the romantic William Jones), but that such an idea should be accepted as fact, when even a blind man can see that the evidence just doesn't support it. Fair enough.

What I took away from Martyn's dissertation was something related, and it seems to be the thing that almost inevitably emerges when you look into the history of a beer style: they change. Especially here in the new world, where we're new to beer, we like to fix things in place: a Belgian wit is a summery wheat ale spiced with coriander, orange peel, and (at the brewer's discretion) other spices. It should be brewed near about 5% alcohol. This is its nature.

Fixing a style's nature is very satisfying: it allows us to understand the vocabulary of flavors. But it's worth noting that style is a moving target. I am nearly through Stan Hieronymus' Brewing With Wheat, and discovered this little nugget about those wits:
Because the white beer style disappeared before Pierre Celis revived it in the town of Hoegaarden, most drinkers--in Belgium, in America, and around the world--tend to think what he brewed defines the style. History shows otherwise...

The beers were refreshing, both brewed and consumed at a time when summer brewing was the exception. They were made with winter barley (high in protein) and raw wheat, which, considering the season, meant they would have been infected. According to the author Adolphe Frentz, that proved to be an asset because it allowed the white beers to compete against the bieres de garde and Bavarian lagers not yet mature enough to drink.

In 1948 brewing scientist Jen De Clerck found all three [extant examples from the time] always heavily infected with Lactobacillus and sometimes with Pediococcus.
Beer styles writhe and mutate, and in order to make sense of them, we allow our memory to become fixed. Isn't this the way of things? It's good that folks like Martyn and Stan remind us that what we think we know isn't the same thing as what is. A bit liberating, really.

And I wonder, in three hundred years, what will humans be brewing, and what kind of wild misconceptions will they hold about what we brewed now, at the dawn of the 21st Century?

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