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by Michael Donaldson
Red, Black, White, Brown. West Coast or East Coast? Brut or session? How about NZIPA?
IPA started life on a long journey – from England to India – and that journey continues today as the world’s favourite big beer spreads its wings to all points of the style compass.
India Pale Ale is the most written about, debated, and divisive style of beer on the planet.
So much of its history is shrouded in mystery, marketing and re-imagining of events 400 years ago. There is no doubt that British breweries were exporting beer to India and the West Indies in the 1700s and sometime around 1760 it became common for these export beers to be more highly hopped than beer brewed for domestic consumption. That’s because hops have a preservative quality that helped the beer survive in its wooden casks through warmer temperatures than an English cellar might experience.
Gradually these beers came to be known, according to historian Martyn Cornell, as “Pale Ale prepared for the East and West India Climate” – and were sometimes referred to as pale India ales – before brewers landed on India Pale Ale.
And so it was for 200 years – an IPA was an English thing but not a very well known English thing and was defined by big malt and equally big hop bitterness.
It was the adventurous and revolutionary American brewers of the late 20th century who took this hoppy English style and spun the wheel of fortune, gambling on versions bittered with American hops which had more dominant citrus and pine characters than their earthy, herbal English counterparts.
For a quarter-century IPA grew in a linear fashion – with recipes staying close to map laid out by the West Coast brewers of California, Oregon and Washington. This West Coast-style IPA is best defined in New Zealand by the multi-award winning Epic Armageddon.
But in the last decade IPA has undergone radical transformation. First came the surge in Double IPA – where the ante was upped on alcohol and hops to create booming, hop-laden beers of 8-9 per cent ABV. Liberty C!tra is the Kiwi benchmark here.
Then came the colour variations – Red IPA in particular is hugely popular, with the addition of “red” malts and their caramel and toffee notes adding a new dimension to IPA. Hop Federation’s Red IPA or 8 Wired’s Tall Poppy are great examples of this oily, chewy, sweet-bitter brew.
White IPAs are a hybrid which bring together the best of America and Belgium, melding a hoppy IPA with a strong Belgian ale. Here the often spicy and fruity Belgian yeast strains spin out the flavour combos. It’s a hard job marrying a strong yeast profile with big hops but an excellent example is Bach Brewing’s Witsunday Blonde IPA.
Other colour variations include Brown IPA – the deep nutty, slightly cocoa notes of the malt overlaid with orange-grapefruit citrus is a perfect match and the incomparable Deep Creek Dusty Gringo does this in style.
Black IPA was hugely popular style five years ago but seems to have fallen a little out of favour, but a good example of the flavour profile is Yeastie Boys’ Pot Kettle Black – also known as a hoppy porter.
The biggest trend in the past two years has been the trans-continental shift in the US power base and the rise of so-called East Coast IPA, aka hazy IPA, milkshake IPA, juicy IPA etc.
The East Coast style was made famous by Vermont brewery The Alchemist with their Heady Topper. It was a counterpoint to the West Coast-style which is crystal clear, clean, sharp, robust style with floral, citrus and pine aromas and a savoury minerality followed by a puckering bitterness.
The East Coast style is a more organic beer for want of a better word. It looks cloudy or hazy because the style demands a lack of interference on the part of the brewer – so it’s not filtered or fined … the tannins and proteins that you’d naturally find in a beer are left rather than cleared out. The there’s a hopping regime that’s almost the opposite of bittering – hops are added late in the process for flavouring rather than bittering. There is some bitterness, but it’s soft and gentle. Hops are chosen that exaggerate fruit-salad characteristics and downplay pine and sharp citrus notes. And an English ale yeast can add further fruity notes. Finally there’s the addition of oats and/or lactose and /or wheat to aid mouthfeel, sweetness and the cloudy appearance.
The pre-eminent execution of this style belongs to Behemoth Brewing – notably Lid Ripper.
Of late, there’s been a counter-point to the hazy style with the introduction of Brut IPA. As the name suggests this is an extremely “dry” IPA – it has an extremely light, delicate body but still packs in a heap of hop flavour. The effect – best exemplified by Urbanaut’s Copacabana Brut IPA – is created with the addition of an enzyme post-fermention. This enzyme gobbles up any residual sugar in the beer to create a body that’s not far removed from water.
Underneath all this are geographical evolutions, where New Zealand has been to the forefront, with local hop varieties chosen instead of the traditional American hops. This is happening, naturally, in hop-growing countries such as Germany, England, Australia and New Zealand.
New Zealand IPAs tend towards more tropical fruit such as passionfruit and lychee and can appear sweeter and more approachable than their aggressive American counterparts.
8 Wired’s Hopwired was the first commercially packaged NZIPA. It showcases three Kiwi hops, Southern Cross, Motueka and Nelson Sauvin. It’s still a big beer with a real punch at 7.3 per cent ABV and some strong bitterness. Boneface The Unit NZIPA is a great introduction to the style – showcasing the great fruit salad bowl flavours
Other breweries are exploring inter-country hop combos. The original in this regard was Parrotdog’s Bitter Bitch, which has a base of English hops overlaid with sweet Kiwi hops, while Bach Brewing’s Kingtide is a trans-Pacific beer that pays homage to US and NZ hops.
Under the radar right now are mixed fermentation IPA which use funky yeasts such as Brettanomyces to add another layer of flavour.
The ultimate irony is that, unlike the original IPAs, which were brewed specifically to withstand the long sea voyage to India, age is the enemy of this new breed of IPAs. The flavours are so delicate and volatile that it’s best to consume them as fresh as possible – up to six months is ideal with many at their best around the 12-week mark.