IPA, IPA, IPA

Martyn’s recent post on the relaunch of Greene King IPA strayed, for me, a little too close to following the GK party line – a view shared, and stated rather emphatically, by some contributors to the ensuing comments thread. But I thoroughly agree with the final point:

Meanwhile, here’s a small rant directed at all those idiots who keep chuntering on about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale” and how IPA has to be “strong and strongly hopped”, so it would survive the long journey to the Indian sub continent, over 200 years ago. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Let’s rush past the fact that 19th century IPA wasn’t strong at all, for the time, but comparatively weak, at around 6% abv. Do you complain because today’s porters aren’t matured in 30-feet-high oak vats for 18 months, as they were 200 years ago? Or that today’s stouts are as weak as 19th century porters? Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. American IPAs, in particular, lovely beers though they often are, are nothing whatsoever like 19th century IPAs: totally wrong hops, totally wrong emphasis on hop aroma, often too strong, and meant to be drunk much more quickly after being brewed than 19th century IPAs were. After the First World War, and the huge rise in the tax on beer, all beers, of all styles, were brewed to lower strengths than they had been in the 19th century. What Greene King IPA is, is a perfect example of a mid-20th century IPA, just like those once brewed by Charrington, Palmers, Eldridge Pope, Wadworths, Wethered’s, Youngers and others in the 1960s and 1970s, all 1035 to 1043 OG. Go and get your Camra Good Beer Guide 2015 edition and look up Phipps IPA (page 844, column 2): OG 1042, abv 4.2%, “recreated from old recipes”: recreated from genuine 20th century recipes, as a genuine 20th century IPA. Just like Greene King IPA.

I’ve never had anything from Phipps, but I did stumble on Wall’s Explorer IPA (4.7% in cask) the other day and noticed that the pump clip described it as “a traditional style India Pale Ale”. So I tried it, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

Clearly, somebody at Wall’s remembers mid-20th-century IPAs too. What was it like? You get a big, fairly heavy, malty body with just a little sweetness. Then you get the bitterness – a tannic bitterness, which hits in mid-mouth, but it’s dialled right up, almost to the charcoal level. The bitter aftertaste isn’t immediately apparent, but it kicks in hard  at the bottom of the glass.

One of my pet hates is the phrase ‘with a twist’. I’d be useless as a judge on Bake Off – I’d much rather see a straight Dundee cake recipe brought off really well than a competently-executed Dundee-with-a-twist, using pecans instead of almonds, chillis instead of glace cherries and polenta instead of flour. The same goes for beer, obviously – I’ve had some really good raspberry beers, damson beers, chocolate beers and w.h.y., but a straight style done really well will usually beat them all. But that IPA made me think that ‘twisting’ a style need not be such an artificial process. A fuller body, a more bitter aftertaste, much more bitterness mid-mouth – the 20th-century IPA was, basically, a twist on best bitter (the same way that black IPA emerged as a twist on stout, perhaps).

To compare and contrast, I made tasting notes for the next few beers I had with ‘IPA’ in the name. Harbour IPA (5%) is a favourite of mine; perhaps the best way to review this one is to say that, if there was ever a juicy banger, this beer is it. There’s bitterness from the off – it leaves your lips buzzing with it – and then a big, bursting hop flavour, fruity without being sweet, citric without being sour. It’s light, goes down very easily and finishes with an emphatic bitter aftertaste.

Another comparison: BrewDog Punk IPA (5.3%). One thing BD’s bottled beers really get right, in my experience, is the aroma – by which I mean, they’ve got lots of it: you really know when you’ve opened the bottle. In this case the aroma was mostly citrus, but with an odd, grainy, burnt-toast quality blended in. The flavour began with citric freshness, building to a big grapefruit character but with some of that burnt toast mixed in. Some sweetness on the finish, too; a distinct lychee or pear-drop flavour lurking in among the bitterness. Like the Harbour it’s very drinkable, and has almost nothing in common with the Wall’s beer.

The impression that IPA means (or has meant) two completely different things was strengthened by a bottle of Shepherd Neame‘s ‘historical recipe’ India Pale Ale (6.1%). Comparing with the Wall’s beer, the same key elements were there: the big, heavy body with a sweet edge; the strong, uncompromising bitterness mid-mouth; both were intense enough to combine in a pleasantly marmaladey way. In fact, the flavours were stronger all round than in the Explorer. Indeed, compared to the Wall’s beer the Shep’s beer was stronger, with more citrus at the front of the mouth and a more intense bitter-lemon aftertaste: in other words, it was like a halfway house between a twentieth-century IPA and the much more extreme contemporary style.

One final comparison: Greene King IPA. I jest – I don’t know where I’d go to find it (my local Spoons serves Ruddles and Abbot Ale). No, what I’m comparing with this time is Metropolitan Lone Wolf – which is to say, a 6% IPA sold in supermarkets in 330 ml bottles (with a rather stylish branding reminiscent of Peter Saville’s Manchester M logo) and brewed by, um, Greene King. The label boasts of seven different hops, with dry hopping for added ‘intensity’. What I tasted, bizarrely enough, was a rather bland variant on the twentieth-century IPA style. Heavy body, sweetness, tannic mid-mouth bitterness and a drying bitter finish were all present and correct, although for my money there was rather too little tannin and too much sweetness; in fact a malty sweetness dominated throughout, perhaps with some hop fruitiness a long way down in the mix. I don’t know if this is in any way related to Greene King IPA in any of its guises, but I’d be surprised if it was startlingly different. Why GK are trying to sell this quintessentially undemanding old-school beer into the ‘craft’ market is anybody’s guess. About the best I can say of it is that, if it were a better beer, it’d be good example of a twentieth-century IPA.

Which – returning to my starting-point – would be no bad thing. To quote a comment I left on Martyn’s post,

I got into real ale as soon as I was old enough to drink, then had a break from beer (or at least from taking beer seriously) between about 1980 and 2000. Coming back into a vastly changed (and rapidly changing) beer scene, one of the things I remembered clearly from ‘before’ was how an IPA ought to taste. Imagine my surprise (among other reactions) when I first tasted one of the new breed of IPAs. I’m not about to start drinking GK IPA in preference to Bengal Lancer et al – that ship has sailed – but I’m sure my 18-year-old self would have recognised & liked it

Even at my current advanced age, I recognised the Explorer IPA as such – and liked it. (But I like the Harbour too.)

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 8 March, 2015 at 10:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

    > I don’t know where I’d go to find it

    The Greede King pub over the road from your local Spoons would be a good place to look…..
    Or they have three pubs in Sale, one in Didsbury, one in Withington….

    • Phil
      Posted 8 March, 2015 at 11:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

      The Beagle’s Greene King?

      Oh, hang on – you mean the Royal Oak? Haven’t been in there for years – last time I stuck my nose in they didn’t have any hand pumps, though.

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