Fake IPA? Say it ain't so, Joe

Posted: April 11, 2014

A LOCAL brewpub operator once told me that he always kept at least one Irish beer on tap, even if he didn't have any actual Irish beer in the house.

Brown ale, rye beer, pale lager, whatever. He'd just plug the word "Irish" into the beer's name (e.g. Irish pale ale), and, like magic, it became an Irish beer.

"In this town," he reasoned, "if it says 'Irish,' it sells."

Years have gone by and that brewpub is no longer in operation. But now there's a new version of the old trick: the fake IPA.

India pale ale, of course, is one of the classic, noble styles of world brewing heritage. It gets its name from the strong, highly hopped, pale British ales that were once exported for colonial trade in Bombay.

The style was nearly extinct in America by the 1970s, before it rebounded with our new-age fascination with extraordinarily aromatic hop varieties. Today, IPA is the No. 1 style in the craft-beer segment.

It turns out, though, that many so-called IPAs began life as little more than brown ale, rye beer or whatever. The brewery just adds more hops and, like magic, it becomes an IPA - even if the beer is neither pale nor even necessarily ale.

Part of this is the fun result of the inventiveness of American brewers who never met a recipe they couldn't tweak. If brewers strictly followed age-old style definitions, we wouldn't have the tingly Raging Bitch Belgian-Style IPA, or earthy Founders Red's Rye IPA, or bold 21st Amendment Back in Black IPA, or refreshing Barren Hill Pilsner IPA.

And who wants that?

But let's face it: The IPA trend also contains a dose of crass commercialism. It no longer means a 300-year-old style of ale. Rather, it's become a neologism aimed at the hop-headed masses. As some industry wags have observed, these days it might actually stand for "Improves Profit Automatically."

The latest example is the so-called Session IPA.

Suddenly, the bottle shops and tap lines are packed with IPAs that imply they're meant to be chugged, not sipped: Founders All Day, Terrapin RecreationAle, Flying Dog Easy, Stone Go To, Harvest Moon Afternoon Delight, Boulevard Pop-Up, Sierra Nevada Nooner, Firestone Walker Easy Jack, Lagunitas DayTime, Rough Draft Weekday and Ballast Point Even Keel, among others.

The conceit behind the new sub-style is that regular IPAs are too high in alcohol (7 percent by volume or more) to be enjoyed for an entire evening, or "session." Session IPAs retain the potent hop character of their parent, but with an alcohol content under 5 percent.

Low alcohol, high hops . . . uh, isn't there already a name for that?

Indeed, there are actually three or four names: pale ale, extra pale ale, American pale ale and a couple I'm probably forgetting. Heck, we could just call it "bitter" - except that that British term fell into disfavor in America because it reminds us that highly hopped beers are often, ironically enough, bitter.

So, Session IPA it is.

As with most styles, the challenge in designing a Session IPA is balance. Because low alcohol beers require less malt, the brewer typically must also reduce the amount of hops. Otherwise, we're left with an unpalatable hop tea that's reminiscent of chewing on a handful of aspirin. Watch out, though: Subtract too many hops and you get Miller Lite.

The solution, many brewers have found, is a tactic called hop-bursting.

Typically, hops are added while the beer's unfermented base (a syrupy mix called wort) is boiling, to extract their bitter alpha acids over the course of an hour or more.

Hop-bursting essentially backloads the majority of the hops, postponing their addition till the last 10 minutes of the boil. That's not enough time for the hops' bitterness to be extracted, but it's plenty of time to capture the highly volatile oils that makes hops either floral or spicy.

Voila! A beer that smells and tastes like a hop monster but with a level of bitterness that won't overwhelm its relatively light body and alcohol content.

There are other tricks to making a Session IPA. Some are made with specialty malts that provide body but not sweetness; others deploy new hop varieties bred specifically to enhance aroma without adding bitterness.

But are they really IPAs?

The traditionalist in me says no. But the beer lover in me welcomes our hoppy overlords and acknowledges that it's only a matter of time till we see the next new style:

The Irish IPA.


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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