Friday, March 19, 2010

Beer of the Week (Vol. XLVII)

Another edition of Beer of the Week, brought to you as always by the fine folks at Glen Lake Wine & Spirits who believe that bitterness belongs in your beer, not in your life (hear that, Atomizer?).

One of the first beer styles that I embraced when I started to appreciate the glory of craft beers many years ago was India Pale Ale. The hoppy, bitter flavors of IPA as well as its rich history--the heavier hops better preserved the beer for the long journey from England to India--help set it apart from macro brews and gave it a special appeal that I still appreciate today. During my regular visits to the late great Sherlock Holmes brew pub in Minnetonka, their version of the IPA was my second favorite selection after Bishop's Bitter.

Over the years, I've quaffed many a quality IPA with some of my favorites brewed by Rush River, Anderson Valley, Tyranena, Mendocino, Full Sail, Highland, Sierra Nevada, Bell's, Surly, Mad River, and Founder's. I've also had plenty of Summit IPA, although I don't enjoy it as much as others because it's too rough around the edges. One of the measures of a truly excellent IPA is its ability to bring out the hoppy, bitterness while maintaining a smooth finish. You want to enjoy the rich flavors, but you want some subtlety as well and that's where Summit IPA misses.

Over the years, I also learned more about India Pale Ale itself. For instance, the origin of the name itself isn't quite as clear cut as had been previously believed:

IPA descends from the earliest pale ales of the 17th century. The term "pale ale" originally denoted an ale which had been brewed from pale malt. The pale ales of the early 18th century were lightly hopped and quite different from later pale ales. By the mid-18th century, pale ale was mostly manufactured with coke-fired malt, which produced less smoking and roasting of barley in the malting process, and hence produced a paler beer. One such variety of beer was October beer, a pale well-hopped brew popular among the landed classes, who brewed it domestically; once brewed it was intended to cellar two years.

The October beer of George Hodgson's Bow Brewery was the world's first India Pale Ale. Bow Brewery beers became popular among East India Company traders in the late 18th century because of the brewery's location and Hodgson's liberal credit line of 18 months. East Indiamen transported a number of Hodgson's beers to India, among them his October beer, which benefited exceptionally from conditions of the voyage and was apparently highly regarded among consumers in India. Bow Brewery came into control of Hodgson's sons in the early 19th century, but their business practices alienated their customers. During the same period, several Burton breweries lost their European export market in Russia because of new tariffs on beer, and were seeking a new export market for their beer. At the behest of the East India Company, Allsop brewery developed a strongly hopped pale ale in the style of Hodgson's for export to India. Other Burton brewers, including Bass and Salt, were anxious to replace their lost Russian export market and quickly followed Allsop's lead. Likely as a result of the advantages of Burton water in brewing, Burton India Pale Ale was preferred by merchants and their customers in India.

Demand for the export style of pale ale, which had become known as "India Pale Ale," developed in England around 1840 and India Pale Ale became a popular product in England. Some brewers dropped the term "India" in the late 19th century, but records indicated that these "pale ales" retained the features of earlier IPA. American, Australian and Canadian brewers manufactured beer with the label IPA before 1900, and records suggest that these beers were similar to English IPA of the era.

Hodgson's October beer style clearly influenced the Burton Brewers's India Pale Ale. His beer was only slightly higher in alcohol than most beer brewed in his day and would not have been considered a strong ale; however, a greater proportion of the wort was well-fermented, leaving behind few residual sugars, and the beer was strongly hopped. The common story that early IPAs were much stronger than other beers of the time, however, is a myth. Moreover, porter shipped to India at the same time survived the voyage, and common claims that Hodgson formulated his beer to survive the trip and that other beers would not survive the trip are probably false. It is clear that by the 1860s, India Pale Ales were widely brewed in England and that they were much more attenuated and highly hopped than porters and many other ales.

So IPA's popularity among the British in India may have had more to do credit terms and simple taste preference rather than because it was the only beer hoppy enough to survive the journey.

There are also many variants on the style. In addition to the classic English IPA, you now can also savor American IPAs, Double (or Imperial) IPAs, Black IPAs, and perhaps even Triple IPAs. Clearly not all IPAs are created equal.

In the past, Colorado's New Belgium Brewing had largely worked within the boundaries of their name by producing quality beers in the Belgium tradition. Which admittedly left them with a lot to explore and they've done that quite nicely. But they have never really gone to the hoppy end of the beer spectrum. Until now, with the release of Ranger IPA.

Standard brown New Belgium bottle. Simple yet attractive brown and green label with a big ol' pile of hops under the bold Ranger name.

Beer Style: India Pale Ale

Alcohol by Volume: 6.5%

COLOR (0-2): Clear amber-gold. 2

AROMA (0-2): Hops & tart citrus. 2

HEAD (0-2): Bright white, full. Good lacing. 2

TASTE (0-5): Strong hop flavors with grapefruit, a little pine, and a touch of sweet malt. Medium bodied and drinkable. 4

AFTERTASTE (0-2): Bitter, but still smooth. 2

OVERALL (0-6): A well-rounded IPA offering. A decent amount of hoppy bitterness without going overboard. A beer that would work well with burgers or steaks on the barbecue. Goes down fairly easy, yet still packs a flavorful punch. Nice to see that New Belgium can do hoppy too. 4

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 16

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