Last night at our monthly homebrew club meeting, Barlow Brewing's Jamey spoke about emerging beer styles and touched on several interesting points about what constitutes a "style". One part of his presentation looked at "experimental IPAs" such as Belgian IPA, Black IPA and this year's "innovation", White IPA. I have to admit that all three of the examples are beers that I have problems enjoying, regardless of what you call them, and this got me thinking about the nature of IPA.
As you know, India Pale Ale started life as a beer for the officer class of the East Indian Company's military wing and bounced around in very warm oceans for 6 months because nobody had built the Suez Canal yet. If you aren't aware of the real history of India Pale Ale, read Martyn Cornell's superb book "Amber, Gold and Black". Actually, read the book in general, it really is a mine of fascinating information.
Through the years breweries have sold pale beers under the moniker of India Pale Ale that range widely in strength, shades of pale and perceived bitterness. IPA eventually split along national lines to become British or American style IPA, depending on the use of hops. In the hands of small indepedent brewers, IPA has become the benchmark by which the quality of a brewery is measured in some minds. Today IPA is effectively a meaningless marketing term, appended to any type of beer as long as you hop the shit out of it and make it virtually unpalatable to anyone other than the latest lupulin loony that wandered into your tasting room.
In many ways you could say that IPA is the Pilsner of the early 21st century. Misunderstood, misappropriated and abused at will by marketeers to sell hopped up beers, just as "Pilsner" has come to mean in the minds of those who know no better, a pale, flacid lager, mass produced and sold cheap in dive bars.
What then does the future hold for IPA, both as a beer and a marketing term? Will some brave soul of a brewer actually have a stab at brewing an early style IPA and letting it hot mature for 4 months so we can see what the product that so wowed the East India Company's "servants"? Will we see endless bastardisation until IPA means precisely nothing or will IPA become accepted shorthand for any beer with too many hops in it?