Ponderables: The Changing Meaning of “IPA”

Hop

“IPA: India Pale Ale. Type of Ale originally made for the Indian Empire. Should be above average in both hop bitterness and alcohol content.”

So wrote renowned beer drinker Michael Jackson in his Great Beer Guide back in 1998. Seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? Ah, to be young and foolish. Sam Tierney at Westcoaster ponders the changing meaning of “IPA”:

Yet while some words or terms fade away or lose their meaning because they are no longer useful or relevant, India pale ale has fallen victim to its own success. Our appetite for hops has grown so insatiable that brewers have struggled with the loss in popularity of other beer styles. The solution, it seems, is to turn those less popular styles into India pale ales. But first you have to shorten “India pale ale” to “IPA,” lest we are reminded that this is supposed to be a pale ale we are drinking. The term IPA is catchy, takes up little precious space on a tap handle or chalkboard, and is currently used to denote a hoppy beer that could be almost anything after that initial criteria has been met. White IPA, brown IPA, red IPA, Belgian IPA, wheat IPA, and the infamous black IPA all combine the hop levels of an American India pale ale with another style of beer. I sometimes wonder when every beer style will be called some derivative of IPA.

If you’ve ever witnessed a novice drinker ask for “your best IPA” at a well-stocked beer bar, you know how complicated things can get. Worse yet is when someone requests “a pale ale”; more often than not, that person wants a pale yellow beer. Tierney notes that the rise of Session IPAs, with their lower alcohol content, may actually help clarify things a bit.

It has only been the more modern, American usage of the name that has led to the belief that India pale ales should be higher in alcohol than a normal pale ale… If session IPA sticks around as a popular style (and I’m betting that it will), we will likely see the “India” modifier shift back toward being an indicator of an emphasis on hops, and less as an indicator of alcohol content.

Read the whole thing here.

Pic from Wikipedia.