Last week we explored Double IPAs. While they and “Single” American IPAs rule the marketplace, they owe their success to the originator of the style, the India Pale Ale from England. The English IPA is a storied beer, with centuries of lore, change and influence.
You’ve probably heard the history that this style was created to provide beer to the British colonists, merchants and military in India in the 1800s. There is a lot of truth to that, but it didn’t happen so succinctly. The highly hopped beer did prove well suited to long ocean voyages from Britain, but no one sat down and created the style from scratch just to ship to India. Rather, it was a century long evolution. Pale Ale was exported to India in the early 1700s and slowly evolved into was was first called “East India Pale Ale” in the 1830s. It eventually faded from glory, overshadowed by the rise of pale lagers in the 1900s. American craft brewers reinvented the style, but all IPA roots run deep in English Ale history.**
English IPAs are more malt forward than their American progeny, but like any good IPA, should be well balanced, tilting towards bitterness. Hops are important in all IPAs, but the malt backbone must be strong enough to support it. The first thing you’ll notice is the fruity aromas from the esters produced during fermentation, along with floral hop aromas. If your only IPA reference points are American, you’re going to be surprised by your first British IPA. You’ll taste malt and earthy hops in this well balanced beer. You won’t find the pine and citrus common in American versions, instead you’ll get wood, spice, herbs and floral flavors. Traditionally, the water sources around London had high mineral contents that contributed to make a dry beer.
English IPAs are gold to copper with a SRM* rating of 6 to 14, virtually the same color as American Double IPAs. English IPA’s were “very” bitter in their heydey, at 40-60 IBUs, but even American Pale Ales are pushing those limits. They are bitter when compared to many styles, but palate wrecking American hop bombs have desensitized us to their more subtle bitterness. Alcohol content is comparable to its American descendents, from 5% to 7.5% ABV.*
Samuel Smith’s India Ale is a delicious example of a classic English IPA. It pours a deep amber color with perfect clarity. Pouring unleashes bright floral aromas with hints of herb and caramel malts. It’s a balanced beer, with flavors of light caramel and a bit of toasted bread, with fruity yeast esters, then it finishes dry with a lingering herbal bitterness. Also, try English IPAs from Fuller’s or Meantime to get different spins on classic British flavors.
It’s difficult to find a lot of great English IPAs in America, fortunately, American craft brewers are making good versions. A solid American interpretation of the style is Brooklyn’s East India Pale Ale, named in tribute of the “original” English IPA. Other good American brewed English style IPAs are Highland Kashmir, Harpoon IPA, 3 Floyds Blackheart and Green Man IPA. (These American “English” IPAs are all produced east of the Mississippi. While there may be some good ones from the West, the “West Coast” IPA is king in that region. It’s interesting to me that many Eastern US breweries, especially one that have been around for 20+ year, focus on the English style.)
One principle of beer and food pairing is eat food from where your beer came from. English IPAs are ideal for English foods, but when you think about it, Indian food is a cultural fit too. You can’t go wrong with Fish & Chips or a nice Curry dish. Cajun jambalayas and blackened chicken dishes are delicious as well with malty, hoppy English IPAs.
The Spiegelau IPA glass was designed to enhance the aromas and flavors of American IPAs, but it does a great job showcasing any hoppy beer, especially English IPAs. Of course you can’t go wrong with classic Nonic pint glass, the traditional vessel for English IPAs.
*Standard Reference Method (color)
*International Bitterness Units (hop alpha-acid utilization)
*Alcohol by Volume
All quantitative specifications are from the BJCP Style Guide, 2015
**The Oxford Companion to Beer, India Pale Ale, pg 482-486