Behold humulus lupulus – a plant that grows in very similar climates that grapes do. It is dioecious, which means that the male and female part flower separately. There are a wide variety of them, found all over the world. It is a climbing plant, so when cultivating it you will see rows and rows of upright poles for the plant to grow on. The female flowering cones are the part of the plant we are most familiar with. We refer to them as hops, and they are used mainly as a bittering agent in beer. The bitterness comes from alpha acids that are natural to the plant. They stay with the brew, protecting it from wild bacteria and filtering the beer to make it look clearer. If that is not enough, they add a variety of flavors to the beer (most often herbal, citrusy, or earthy ones), as well as cut down the sweetness of the fermented malt.
Why are hops so important? The first Thursday in August is rapidly being established as International IPA Day, and the most important thing to an IPA is hops. Lots and lots of hops. IPA is the shortening of “India pale ale”, a style of beer that is almost 200 years old. IPAs are most noted for their bitterness and complexity, having enough malt to balance out the hops. Some brewers also add other ingredients to the mix (Three Floyd’s Apocalypse Cow adds milk sugar) to tame the hoppiness. The colors of IPAs usually fall into the golden or amber hues, but some will get dark as the malts are given a deep roast (like 21st Amendment’s Back In Black).
The history of the IPA is, say it with me, muddy at best. The most common story is this one: Britain was colonizing India in the 18th and 19th centuries. The soldiers out there still wanted a fine beer to drink, and getting fine British ales out to the troops was problematic. Popular British ales had a tendency to spoil on the long trip over, so they needed something that was a little hardier. A gentleman named George Hodgson was the first to crack to code with October beer. It was well hopped and intended to be cellared for up to two years. It was considered “pale ale” because it was lighter than the porters and ales England was used to. It also traveled much better than normal ales because of the hops’ nature of keeping the beer protected from microbes. While Hodgson was the first to send such pale ales over to India, the breweries in Burton-on-Trent became the most popular. Because of certain impurities in the water there, the beer was a little more bitter than normal. The soldiers (and people of India) fell in love with the ale, and it became a staple. It was popular until nearly the 20th century, when it was replaced with a mix of whiskies, gins, and teas. Mainly teas.
Over the years IPA has evolved into three distinct subcategories. American Style IPAs are more citrusy and herbal than their traditional counterparts, looking to go for big flavors. English Style IPAs are brewed in the traditional style, focusing more on the balance of the malt and English grown hops, and creating a well crafted and consistent beer. Belgian Style IPAs often employ American hops, but are bottle conditioned with Belgian yeast, giving the beer a little more cloudiness. American craft brewers have fallen in love with the style (and substyles) over the last few years, going out of their way to cross breed hops to try new flavors. They have imported hops from New Zealand, as well as emulated classic hops from England. The United States is one of the three largest growers of hops in the world, after Germany and Ethiopia. All of them have their characteristic bitterness, and that bitterness is measured in something called International Bittering Units, or IBUs. It is a scientific, chemical calculation. Sometimes it is listed on the bottle, depending on how proud the brewer is of the hoppiness in the beer. Most American Lagers, like Budweiser and Coors, have an IBU rating between 5 and 17. IPAs tend to range from 40-60, some going higher. Imperial stouts actually have higher IBUs (50-80), but the heavily roasted malt overpowers the bitter hops. Green Flash’s Palate Wrecker is an off the chart 100+ IBU (there is no good measurement for over 100, but their site claims 149 IBUs), and is available at the Van Buren Tap Room if you are looking for a challenge to your mouth, or you just hate your taste buds.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with what beers to celebrate with, and that is okay. We also have a Snobby Beer Guy on staff, and I ran into him at the Kegerator. We have perks here at the office. When I asked him what some of the best IPAs are out there, he offered up Fat Head’s Head Hunter IPA and Brew Kettle’s White Raja. Ohio’s own Great Lakes Brewing Company also has a highly recommended IPA, Commodore Perry. Other highly recommended IPAs I have tried (and read about) include Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch (also banned in Michigan), Sam Adams’ Latitude 48, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, and Stone Brewing’s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. Our own local Dayton Beer Company is also brewing an IPA for you to enjoy. With the popularity of IPAs right now, any brew house will have a fine selection on hand. Some places you may look to are Chappy’s Tap Room, South Park
If you have been hiding safely in the realm of lighter, sweeter beers, go out and wake your taste buds up with a few India pale ales. It took months of creativity and dedication to create something this complex, and you should go out and try them at least once. It is International IPA Day, and every beer deserves a chance at a good home. Cheers!
NOTE: This article originally noted that hops added alcohol content. After further research, that turned out to be false. Hops add bitter notes, antiseptic qualities, and balance.
This article originally ran in August of 2012 and we find it just as relevant today, only with many more IPA’s to choose from!