Today we celebrate the little cone flowers we call hops and the beer style that showcases them: the India Pale Ale.
The Pale Ale and IPA beer styles have grown to many, visually stunning (or not, depending on who you ask) subcategories over the years. The fact remains that whether radiantly clear or with more haze than a night in Humboldt, there is no denying the intense aromas and flavors exploding from a well-made IPA. From being used for the first time in beer sometime in the 1100s in Germany to them arriving in England by 1500, hops are what make IPAs so popular.
The “India” in India Pale Ale is a bit misleading and the almost-perfect story about its origins is too good to be true. So, it most likely is. The story goes that in the 1700s George Hodgson, a London brewer, produced a strong pale ale with more alcohol and added more hops to the barrels to withstand the long journey on ship from England to the colonies in India. The beer that arrived was not like the usual pale ale of the time as it had absorbed much of the hop oils providing a very hop-forward aromatic ale.
It’s a nice story, but there is little evidence to support this claim. Yes, beers were sent to India. But records show the most popular beer at the time was porter. There is documentation that show beers for the Indian market by 1820, and it may have sparked the idea that eventually named the IPA by 1840. The more likely lineage of IPA is a lost beer style called the Burton Ale. After the market for this beer (the Baltics) was lost in the 1820s, Allsopp, Bass, and other breweries in and around Burton began producing and perfecting IPA based on the Burton Ale format. Helped by the gypsum-rich (calcium sulfate) bedrock and water wells, Burton was perfect for this style. Calcium aids in protein coagulation, yeast flocculation to assist in clarity, while sulfates enhance the hop bitterness. Calcium also aids in yeast metabolism. After wars and other events and downturns, it took centuries for the homebrewers and the first craft beer revolution in the United States to popularize this style once again.
To touch on the chemistry of hops ever so briefly, hops are little green cones (which grow on the female hop plant only!) that contain alpha acids for bittering and lupulin oils for aroma and flavor. Alpha acids, the bittering compound found in beer, need to be isomerized (chemical structure rearranged) so they can be dissolved. It turns out boiling temperatures accomplish this and allow the alpha acids to dissolve into the beer. So, it is safe to say, the more hops that are used at the beginning of the boil will result in a more bitter beer. Lupulin oils by contrast are quite volatile and require less contact to dissolve. So, if hops are added toward the end of a boil, the beer will retain more of the oils released and less of the acids, resulting in hop aroma and flavor. Hence, dry hopping (adding hops into the fermenter) results in a beer with more pronounced hop aromatics and flavors. The aromas of hops range from minty to herbal, from spicy to perfumy, from fruity to pungent, and everything in between! The concentration of certain oils, the strength of the alpha acids, the lineage of a particular breed, and where the hops are cultivated all play a part in the designation of hop variety and in how it will end up in the finished beer.
Now, what about locally? We have so many great IPAs here in Orange County — arguably some of the best in the state, if not the entire country! Award-winning breweries like Green Cheek and Noble Ale Works have some amazing examples. Others worth checking out are: Stereo, Tustin Brewing Company, Chapman Crafted, TAPS, and RIIP Beer Company, just to name a few. We are lucky to have so many great breweries with amazing IPAs. No matter where you end up today, order an IPA, hazy or not, and give praise to the little green flower with power.
Have a hoppy day!
Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.