Saturday, 13 February 2016

English IPA

This all kicked off when I was writing a 1957 Whitbread IPA recipe recently. When I was plugging the details into BeerSmith, I chose as style English IPA. Makes sense. It's an IPA brewed in England.

It didn't fit with the specs of the style at all. Way too low in gravity. Looking more closely at the supposed characteristics of the style, I realised that virtually no IPA brewed in the UK in the 20th century matched the numbers. The gravity range given is 1050-1075º. While I'm pretty sure that almost no British IPA brewed between 1820 and 1980 was over 1070º.

I realised that the definition of English IPA wasn't based on anything as silly as IPA's brewed in the UK. But what American home brewers think and English IPA should be like. So similar to an American IPA, but not as hoppy. Or with English rather than US hops. I love the utter cheek of this statement in the 2008 BJCP style guidelines:

"The term “IPA” is loosely applied in commercial English beers today, and has been (incorrectly) used in beers below 4% ABV."
Right. So American home brewers get to decide what a British brewery can and cannot call IPA. The idea that there's some universal definition of IPA that means it can't be applied to a beer of under 4% ABV. While low gravity IPA has a long history. A much longer one than the modern American style. Yet for some reason that doesn't count.

The idea of IPA having wildly different strengths doesn't seem to have phased British drinkers. As I realised when I searched the newspaper archive for "Whitbread IPA". And came across this gem of an advert:

Why is it so revealing? Because it lists two very different kinds of IPA. You just need to look at the prices.

First you've got Whitbread IPA, selling for 2s 6d for a dozen pints, or 2.5d per pint. Further down the list are Worthington and Bass IPA, selling for the same price for half pints. Meaning they were double the price of Whitbread IPA.

If you look at the beers themsleves, the reason for the price difference is obvious: Bass and Worthington were much stronger.

Bass, Whitbread and Guinness 1898 - 1912
Year Brewer Beer Style OG FG ABV App. Atten-uation
1898 Bass Pale Ale IPA 1064.9 1015.6 6.43 76.02%
1901 Bass Dog's Head IPA 1065.6 1003.3 8.06 94.59%
1901 Bass White Label IPA 1063.8 1007.4 7.25 87.73%
1912 Whitbread IPA IPA 1048.8 1011.0 4.99 77.44%
1912 Whitbread LS Stout 1055.7 1013.0 5.65 76.65%
1901 Guinness Foreign Extra Stout Stout 1075.7 1013.3 8.18 82.42%
1901 Guinness Extra Foreign Stout Stout 1075.0 1013.2 7.86 81.34%
Brockhaus' konversations-lexikon, Band 2 by F.A. Brockhaus, 1898
Wahl & Henius, pages 823-830
Whitbread brewing records held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document numbers LMA/4453/D/01/077 and LMA/4453/D/09/106.

Clearly drinkers weren't confused by being offered IPAs of very different strengths. Whitbread IPA is about as weak as beer got before WW I, when average gravity was 1055º. Today a beer in the same strength class would have an OG of around 1035º.

Note also the price premium for Pale Ale: despite being the same price as the Stout, the gravity was lower. Though the Jacob's Pilsener was even more overpriced, costing the same as a Burton Pale Ale, when its gravity would have been much lower.

If early 20th-century drinkers could get their heads around low-gravity IPA, what's the problem today?


Jeremy Drew said...

It is funny how things can change from descriptive to prescriptive.

The BJCP guidelines are only there for judging American homebrewing competitions, so I can't really work myself to give a tinker's cuss what is in them. In fairness, though, the 2015 revision gives a more accurate write-up and does make clear "The style underwent a craft beer rediscovery in the 1980s, and is what is
described in these guidelines.".

I suspect that IPA has only ever really been a marketing phrase anyway.

Dan Klingman said...

I appears that the BJCP (2015 guidelines) is sticking to the early definition of an IPA having a higher alcohol content:

"According to CAMRA, “so-called IPAs with strengths of around
3.5% are not true to style.” English beer historian Martyn
Cornell has commented that beers like this are “not really
distinguishable from an ordinary bitter.” So we choose to agree
with these sources for our guidelines rather than what some
modern British breweries are calling an IPA; just be aware of
these two main types of IPAs in the British market today."

Although they recognize modern IPA may have lower ABV, that's not what they use for the definition of English IPA.

Anonymous said...

Americans have a long tradition of ignoring the rest of the world and pretending they've invented things.

Anonymous said...

You know the answer better than me, of course, so I'm not saying anything new here. The problem is that the whole notion of style used by a subpopulation of the beer world is flawed all the way down to the core. They mistakenly believe that style is like a biological category; that there is some kind of beer DNA which narrowly defines the flavor and ABV of an IPA in the same way that DNA determines the colors of a robin and the song that it sings. Furthermore, just as a robin can never overlap with a heron or a hawk, these people think that an IPA somehow has exclusive categorical boundaries which set it off from other beer species.

These people even talk of evolution of beer styles as if there is some connection to Darwin -- that just as a line of foxes isolated on an island will bit by bit change in genetic structure to form a new species related to, but distinct from the mainland form, so will the IPAs of the Eastern USA form a separate style from West Coast IPAs.

What makes this viewpoint doubly infuriating besides the bad biological parallel is the way it is historically out of touch, as you've documented so many times. Until extremely recently, almost no one has thought of styles in such a rigid, exclusive way. The closest it might come would be with branded forms of style -- a Guinness Stout would be thought of in a pretty particluar way, but even then, Guinness could launch a major change any time it wanted, or may have been forced by government policies.

Part of the issue is that early beer style definers followed the path of wine writing. But wine can sometimes be thought of this way due to many wineries using a single variety of grape grown in a very small region, while that's just not how beer has been made in any major way for centuries.

I think there's been some movement among the BJCP types toward a more realistic and less dogmatic viewpoint, but there's still so much nonsense. From what I recall from your blog, the only other group which has been so rigid in its style rules as the less enlightened modern beer geeks was the bureaucracy of East Germany. Maybe if the geeks knew that, they might think twice, but I can't be sure they wouldn't take it as a compliment.

Ron Pattinson said...

Dan Klingman,

IPA having a higher alcohol content than what? Historically, the relationship between IPA and Pale Ale is all over the place. There are as many examples of a brewery's Pale Ale being stronger than their IPA as there are the other way around.

Anonymous said...

The BJCP made a huge error initially by trying to judge beers on fidelity to style, and they've never gotten themselves out of that box.

Cooking competitions sometimes fall into this trap, so you'll have barbeque contests which insist on false notions of authenticity, but far more often you'll get better approaches such as Chopped or Iron Chef which care far less about rigid and false ideas about authenticity and reward more meaningful skills. With any luck, you'll see an end to the old BJCP contests based on brewing the best Northern Brown or American Wheat and a much better way of running competitions.

In a way it parallels the problems of dog competitions based on breed definitions, which have resulted in terrible things for the health of purebred dogs over the years. Even though only a tiny minority of dogs are ever entered into kennel club competition, the strict breed guidelines have resulted in millions of unhealthy dogs, and even though most beer is never entered into BJCP style competitions, their guidelines also mangle and stunt a lot of beer.

Gary Gillman said...

What easily gets lots in these discussions is what was vital to pale ale exported to India. What was vital was stability of the beer. To ensure stability, two things were done: the beer was hopped heavily; and it was fermented to near dryness. Strength in and of itself, if it figured at all in the picture, came last.

This is why it is logically possible to have a low-strength IPA: it is dryness and hop character that count, not the alcohol.

That said, the market in India was not going to accept a very weak beer because people like a beer to have a decent alcohol content. So much of the time it was 6-7% abv. People want value, after all.

By the way alcohol does not, of itself, preserve beer from souring. I think we all know that who have familiarity with craft products over some decades.


Barm said...

It’s not the Americans’ fault – they got the nonsense from British “authorities” in the first place, like the CAMRA quote mentioned above. In the Oxford Companion to Beer you find Pete Brown defending the legitimacy of session-strength IPA, while Tim Hampson a few pages earlier or later dismisses them as not real IPAs at all.

Rod said...

It wouldn't matter what the BJCP rules said *if* (and it is an "if") they were only ever applied to home brewing competitions.
Unfortunately, many people, not only in the USA, regard them as a definitive bible as to beer styles and they often get used and quoted out of the context of home brewing.
Imposing a rigid set of rules on something as complex historically as the nature of beer styles is never going to work in the real world, however useful the rules may be for judging home brew.
The nature of many beer styles (bitter/pale ale/IPA, stout/porter, helles/pils)are overlapping and highly varied, but people like clarity, so as someone said above, what started out descriptive becomes prescriptive.

I also think that there is truth in the comment above that IPA has only ever really been a marketing phrase anyway.

marquis said...

One factor in 19th century IPA brewing was that you could only get a duty (tax) refund on exported beer over an OG of 1.055
There is evidence that brewers would have brewed weaker IPAs for export had the restriction been lifted.

Anonymous said...

Reading the occasional post here about the constant battles of brewers against the mishandling of beer in English pubs leads me to think of another reason why beer headed to India would be heavily hopped. Hops cover up a lot of faults in beer in the same way that lots of salt, sugar and spices cover up faults in food, and shipping beer halfway around the world, often to be followed by difficult transport from the dock, multiplies the opportunities for mishandling beer.

I think the talk of hops as preservatives is really a coded way for brewers to say they were hoping that hops could cover up bad tastes that could result from oxidation, lousy taps, dirty mugs, and all the other things that could happen once the barrels were out of their hands. And likewise, I think a lot of craft brewers these days use tons of hops in their beers to prevent people from tasting things that are going on with their beers, rather than for the flavor of the hops themselves.

Gary Gillman said...

Anon, I agree up to a point, but from my reading of it, the main thing to be combatted once the beer went out was sourness. Hops do help retard the effect, they deter acetobacter, but only for a time. This 1893 experiment reported in the Brewers Guardian seems to establish this:

The English had rules of thumb for how much hops to use even for domestic beers, and it was directly proportional to the time the beer was intended to be kept.


David said...

Ron, Why call the authors out on the 2008 edition of their guidelines when this edition is so old?

It's true that some of the misinformation persists in the 2015 edition. I note that your name is listed in the "Review and Commentary" section on the front cover of that edition. Did you try and put them right about all this or were you not reviewing the Pale Commonwealth Beer chapter?