Monday, 15 August 2011
I'll get this out of the way first. I almost never drink IPA. I quite like a decent Pale Ale - Harveys Sussex Best springs to mind - but the IPA bug has not stuck its fangs in me yet. I doubt it ever will. I don't like grapefruit, either in fruit, juice or hop form. And as for a beer that keeps whallopping me over the head to get my attention, no thank you. I prefer more polite beers.
But I won't be discussing my own personal preferences. Because, let's be honest, no-one really gives a shit about the likes and dislikes of others. Not unless they're married to them and want to stay that way. (The one thing that more than 20 years of marriage have taught me.)
No, I'm interested in a phenomenon. IPA inflation. Because it tells us something about styles. How they grow, develop and mutate. That I find fascinating.
In the beginning Hodgson created IPA (well, not really, but you'll allow me a little poetic licence, I hope). Pale, hoppy, you know the score. Sent initially to India, later guzzled back in blighty, too. Lacking style guidelines to guide them, Victorian brewers soon started confusing things. Sometimes they'd call a beer IPA, others Pale Ale. When a brewer made beers called both, the IPA might be the stronger, or it might be the PA. Like I said, there were no rules.
Finding the full-on hops and 6% ABV a bit much, some drinkers wanted something less challenging. A nice, light beer to help wash down their supper. An gaggle of beers arrived to fill the hole: Dinner Ale, Light Bitter, AK. Despite being quite different from the original IPA, these beers were still considered to belong to the Pale Ale family. (Family Ale, that's another one. One of my favourite beer names, in fact.) Quite distinct from IPA, yet they probably wouldn't have existed without it. The salt cellar of IPA dropped into the soup of 19th century brewing splashed many ties. The dry cleaning bills must have been enormous.
While Burton brewers remained faithful to the IPA they had married as teenagers, those elsewhere were more promiscuous. They brewed beers called IPA that were more in the Light Bitter vein. There not being any rules, no-one wagged any fingers and uttered the dread words "not true to style". Drinkers really didn't care about such ant shagging and got on with drinking the beers they liked, no matter what label the brewer had stuck on.
(Mmm. That introduction was longer than anticipated. never mind. Feel free to skip bits.)
Success breeds imitation. Everyone wants to share the IPA buzz. And those three letters help sell a beer. No wonder then, that it's not long before beers quite different from the original American IPA acquire them. Suddenly IPA has a whole family of prefixes. And the IPA family has filled its apartment and started looking for a nice big house in the suburbs. But some of the kids don't look much like their father. Are there cuckoos in the nest?
Let's do a roll-call and find out.
These beers could easily be classified in other styles. Double IPA - Strong Ale; Black IPA - Stout; Belgian IPA - Tripel; German IPA - Alt; Wheat IPA - Weizen Bock; Imperial/Triple IPA - Barley Wine. Why weren't they?
Because the name IPA sells. Call your beer Belgian IPA and it'll sell better than if you call it Tripel.
I don't expect IPA inflation to end soon. The whole IPA as favourite thing has to run its course. But when, inevitably, IPA falls out of favour, as all beer styles do, see what will happen. How quickly brewers drop the IPA suffix once it becomes a liabilty rather than an asset.
Here's an example. Many British Milds no longer have the word Mild in their name. Because they sell more that way. Mild conjours up images of old men, flat caps and whippets. Things no 20 year old (other than my younger self) wants to be associated with. The same will happen to IPA. It's a generational thing. No-one wants to listen to the same music as their father and grandfather. Nor wear the same clothes. Nor drink the same beer.
IPA should enjoy its time in the sun. The holiday won't last forever.