India pale ale rises to the top

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NINE OUT OF 10 beers consumed in this country are the same dependable American-style lagers. But what about that 10th one?

Increasingly, it’s India Pale Ale, a style that resides defiantly at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum. Flowery, bitter and full of fruity aromas – it’s astonishing that this edgy style thrives in a world of indistinct sameness.

Yet, thrive it has. Today, it is almost certainly the No. 1 craft-brew style in America. At the annual Great American Beer Festival, IPAs have been the most popular judging entry in each of the past four years. I can’t name a brewpub that doesn’t make one; indeed, among many microbreweries, from Victory Brewing in Downingtown to Bear Republic in California, it’s the No. 1 seller.

Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the selection at your local beer distributor. The Beer Yard in Wayne, for example, lists nearly 80 IPAs, more variety than even among lagers.

Which is remarkable not just because their taste is so different from the mainstream, but because just 30 years ago, IPA was almost nonexistent on the American beer landscape, except for Ballantine India Pale Ale.

So, how did we get from one to possibly 1,000 different IPAs in just a few years?

As with most craft beer trends, it’s tempting to credit Fritz Maytag, the man who turned San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing into America’s first modern craft brewery. In 1976, he produced Liberty Ale for the nation’s bicentennial celebration. No, he didn’t call it an IPA, but Liberty Ale’s hoppy flavor soon begat a family of West Coast hopheads. Sierra Nevada, BridgePort, Mendocino, Rogue, Deschutes – they all pushed the hop button (mainly the grapefruity Cascades variety), first in their milder pale ales and eventually in beefier IPAs.

The deeper explanation for IPA’s popularity, though, might be found in the beer itself. This style was originally brewed in England in the late 1700s to cool the thirst of the Crown’s colonial empire in India.

London’s sweeter porters and lighter ales couldn’t survive the trip to Bombay. The solution, found by a brewer named George Hodgson, was to brew an ale to a higher alcohol level, then balance the increased malt content with more hops.

Hops and alcohol provided some preservative value to stave off sourness, Hodgson found. More importantly, perhaps, the increased bitterness tended to mask many off-tastes.

Two hundred years later, America’s young (and mostly self-trained) brewers discovered the same trick. As most shied from pasteurization, brewers learned IPAs could last a few more weeks on the shelf. And when they made the inevitable recipe mistake, they fixed it with a bit of dry-hopping (adding hops after fermentation). As one well-known brewer told me a few years ago, hops can hide a multitude of sins so easily, “a monkey could make an IPA. “

Well, maybe.

But the fact is, after making so many IPAs, American brewers have gotten pretty damn good at this classic European style. Except that, as with cars and rock ‘n’ roll, Americans make ’em bigger, better, faster and stronger.

“We’ve totally redefined the IPA in America,” said Brian O’Reilly, brewer at Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery in Phoenixville. “It’s a very extreme beer, the way it’s made now. “

The extreme nature of the style, I think, is the real reason for its popularity. Craft beer drinkers have left standard lagers behind; other varieties like Kolsch, pilsner, Oktoberfest – even lighter ales – are too subtle to do the trick. But a monster like Sly Fox’s hugely bitter Rt. 113 IPA knocks ’em upside the head and tells them in no uncertain terms why they laid out 25 bucks for a case.

“Our customers,” O’Reilly acknowledged, “just can’t seem to get enough of hops. “

Sly Fox will prove that point today with the eagerly anticipated culmination of its yearlong IPA Project. Throughout 2005, O’Reilly brewed and served a series of single-variety IPAs (using one hop variety, not a blend), saving a keg of each. Nine different single-variety IPAs will be tapped, along with a 10th, called Odyssey (a blend of the nine), as well as a handful of others. Together, the Sly Fox IPA Project boasts a staggering 14 IPAs served at one bar. And, no, they won’t all taste the same.

Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery (Pikeland Village Square, Phoenixville) celebrates its 10th anniversary today starting at 10 a.m. with a beer breakfast. All 13 Sly Fox IPAs will be available on tap and in growlers to go. Info, 610-935-4540.

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