Friday, 22 January 2010

A Year of Beer 2010 #2 - Crown Brewery India Pale Ale

IPA, IPA, IPA. Bloody IPA. What does it mean? As Stuart Howe, brewer at Sharp's points out: "IPA, the most meaningless set of initials in brewing." And yet they are everywhere. I'm drinking one right now - Port Brewing 3rd Anniversary Ale, kindly gifted to me by Phil at It's a classic, a splendidly concentrated West Coast IPA, almost too concentrated, but still very drinkable despite the 10%abv, so you know who to blame if this post becomes as long and incoherent as this first paragraph might suggest it will.

Bloody IPA. I wussed out of giving a sensible definition in the book what I wrote, preferring instead to rechristen IPA as International Pale Ale. Sure, I explain what "real" IPA is, but really, the initials have become so debased as to be more-or-less meaningless. Is it going to be a 3.5%abv session beer, or a 10%abv hop monster that will knock you on your arse after one large bottle? I don't think there's any style of beer that has a greater range of flavours within it.

You'll know by now the story of IPA - a strong, hoppy beer that made the journey from England to India, via the circuitous trade routes that took it west across the Atlantic, east round the Cape, and up to India. In a moment of idle curiosity, Pete Brown wondered out loud what a beer might be like that made the journey, and then spent the best part of a year cursing himself for this idle pub thought. He did it - he brewed as authentic an IPA as he could, then took it on the authentic trade route for IPA.

I won't telegraph the punchlines in the book (for they are legion), but it's a great read. There's a lot of information about IPA in there, as well as travel writing, psychology, and the most perfect description ever of falling into a canal. But what is even more enjoyable (and I'm sure he's had a blast doing it) are the many IPAs that Pete has had a hand in over the last year or so.

I was surprised that I've only tried one of them, Crown Brewery India Pale Ale. But this IPA is so good that I almost don't care about missing the others. There's a lot of things going on here, and I don't just mean the flavours. Stuart is a great brewer, and has spared no expense in making this brew chock full o' hops - it's a total hop monster, but still brilliantly balanced. The bright, pithy, olfactory assault of grapefruit, lime, orange pith and backnote of toffee malt is mouthwatering. It's just as good on the palate, with a bonus that, being bottled from cask, the carbonation on this is bang on. Not only does it taste like real ale in a bottle, but it has the same texture and mouthfeel too. It's clean, bright and forceful, but delicate and elegant at the same time. I'd be lying if I called "the English Pliny", but it is really, really good.

It's also worth noting that Stuart has warm-conditioned this beer, partly to try and replicate the conditions that it might have experienced on the long journey to Calcutta, and also partly from a "let's just do it" experimental attitude. I can't tell you what the beer was like before conditioning - a total lupulin beast, I would guess - but what has come out at the end is a great beer. There is one cask left of this brew, and Stuart has said he will bottle it.

OK, there you have it. A beer, a book, and a (slightly too long) story about them both. Neither are currently available, the IPA being still in cask, and the book being out of print until its paperback release in June. If you live in Leeds, and come to Beer-Ritz, we should soon be able to sell you the last release of this batch of IPA, and (if you promise to return it) lend you a hardback first edition of Pete's book. Don't say that we don't try to win your custom.

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