Joe Sixpack: Searching far and wide for an IPA

Posted: September 04, 2009

GOD LOVE the eccentric Brit.

Inventors, tinkers, explorers, writers and just plain dreamers: These Monty Pythonesque characters may be loons, but they sure do spice up the rest of our dreary lives.

Oscar Wilde decorated with peacock feathers. Aristocrat Stephen Tennant spent his life in bed. Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, hosted banquets for dogs. Keith Moon of the Who blew up toilets. Prince Charles talked with his plants.

And Pete Brown last year traveled 18,000 miles by land, sea and air from Burton-on-Trent, England, to Calcutta, India, just to taste an authentic India pale ale. He wrote about the adventure in the superb "Hops and Glory: One Man's Search for the Beer That Built the British Empire" (MacMillan, 2009).

OK, as a beer drinker who has bemoaned the paucity of full-flavored English-made IPAs, I can kinda appreciate Brown's eccentric trek.

Here is a style that evolved in the early 1800s as a pale ale whose added hops and high alcohol allowed it to survive its long voyage from England to colonial outposts in Mumbai and Calcutta. There is great uncertainty and myth surrounding its actual birth, but there is no doubt that IPA was the key to one of the world's greatest brewing capitals, the town of Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire.

Mainly it was the town's water, drawn from wells 1,000 feet deep, that made Burton's beer so distinctive. Rich with gypsum, the water enhanced the bitterness of hops to produce a thirst-quenching dryness.

The ale grew to such popularity that by 1874, Burton was home to 28 breweries. The largest, Bass, employed 3,000 men and covering 750 acres.

Over the decades, taxation, temperance and taste changes weakened and dulled British beer. Now owned by Coors, Bass strips Burton's famous water of its mineral content before brewing.

Surveying the English IPA scene, Brown writes, "Most IPAs sold in Britain today bear scant resemblance to the ales that went to India, beyond being wet and mildly intoxicating." At less than 4 percent alcohol by volume, they are "shadows of their former selves, just another of those arcane acronyms at the bar."

In the United States, we can satisfy ourselves with luscious, full-flavored American-style

IPAs that are close to the original. Spiced with ample amounts of aromatic hops, American IPA from the likes of Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head is now one of the most popular styles you'll find in the craft-beer aisle.

"When I first tasted it," Brown writes of the IPA he sampled at Bridgeport Brewing in Portland, Ore., "no beer had ever tasted as good before."

Faced with a vapid selection of English-made IPAs, another man might shrug and pony up for an import.

But in a stroke of hairbrained madness (appropriately during a night of downing pints at a favorite pub), Brown decided to commission his own cask and transport it by sea to India.

The beer would be made at the Museum Brewery on the grounds of the Bass Brewery. It would be brewed with extra English hops to a strength of twice the alcohol of today's weak-kneed British IPAs.

Then, Brown would load it onto a ship and retrace the route the original IPA would have taken, from Burton and south to the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, north along the coast of Africa, past the pirates of Somalia before finally crossing the Indian Ocean.

It's believed that the IPAs of the 19th century improved with all that rigorous sloshing on the waves. Was Brown's trek worth all the effort?

After months of travel, it's clear that this eccentric quest was not about the flavor of beer, but about the idea of beer.

"This was one of the increasingly frequent occasions," Brown explains, "when I got carried away after spending too much time with the kind of people you meet when you let beer start to mean more to you than simply the best long drink in the world."

Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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