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Brewer's Blog - What is an IPA?

August 16, 2022 3 min read

Brewer's Blog - What is an IPA?

Libby recently posted a question on the Bishop Nick Facebook site – “what is an IPA”.  The answer is actually very straightforward.  It’s an India Pale Ale, brewed mainly in Burton-upon-Trent, for export to the British troops in India during Victorian times.  The liquid nectar had to survive a hot and turbulent voyage around Africa and across the Indian Ocean and therefore needed to be strong in alcohol and heavily hopped.  Both alcohol and hop bitterness act as preservatives, preventing oxidation and spoilage by moulds and bacteria.  I have historical recipes which are surprisingly consistent – the finest and palest English pale malt made up the grist, whilst the bittering and aroma was derived solely from East Kent Goldings hops.  Original gravities ranged from 1.070 to 1.090, resulting in a deep golden 7 to 9% ABV ale, whilst bitterness levels reached a mouth puckering 170 EBUs.  To put that into perspective, today’s brand leading IPA has an ABV of 3.5% and a bitterness of 20 EBUs – over 8 times less bitter!


Unfortunately, the term IPA has been used and abused in recent times, to the point that it is meaningless, very much like the much bandied about “craft” moniker.  I severely doubt whether wooden casks of today’s session bitters masquerading as IPAs would survive the long journey to India via the Cape of Good Hope, or even beyond the English Channel.


The problem is not isolated to the United Kingdom.  Our American friends are also abusing the term IPA.  West Coast, Double and Triple IPAs have ABVs that are close to matching the Burton IPAs, but bitterness levels are relatively subdued as most of the hops are thrown into the fermentation vessels, rather than having their bitter oils extracted during the boil.  In addition, most American hops have been bred to release bubble gum tropical flavours, not the spicy, grassy, floral, earthy notes of Goldings.  Another style of IPA that has become popular in recent years is the NEIPA, or New England IPA.  This is about as far removed from a traditional IPA as you can get.  Although they are strong, they are cloyingly sweet, unbalanced and have next to no bitterness.  Vast quantities of bubble gum hops are used, but virtually none get boiled, so the vital preserving quality of hops is lost.  NEIPAs are so unstable and susceptible to oxidation that all contact with air must be eliminated during fermentation and packaging and the best before dates of such beers (even in a cold fridge) number a few weeks from canning.  They’d have to be air freighted to India and drunk at the airport.


I could go on and on, as everything is IPA today, it’s clearly a very successful marketing tool.  Make a red beer, call it Red IPA, make a black beer, call it Black IPA, etc etc.  “Bitter” is so old school.


So there you go.  Happy IPA day, but would you like me to brew you a proper IPA?  I realise that times have changed, but lots of new and exciting British hops that have appeared over the last 10 years, so perhaps we can resurrect what was once a British tradition with a hint of modernity?  Don’t worry - it won’t have 170 units of bitterness – we have the Suez Canal today!