Lager Drinkers and India Pale Ale

The last few years have seen a revival in interest in IPAs (India Pale Ales), with brewers such as Brew Dog, Thornbridge, and Marble, among others, leading the charge to make ever more bitter, hoppy, bright, and flavoursome ales. Some of these, including Thornbridge’s Jaipur and Fyne Ales’ Avalanche, are among my favourite beers of any kind and I urge you to try them. But more than that I think they have a potential to change the landscape of British beer drinking in ways that have not yet been realised.

IPA has been in this culture-changing position before. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was the ale that travelled around the world, quenching the thirst of British soldiers in India and elsewhere. Sulphate-rich Burton water suits the large quantities of hops used as a preservative in IPA, making their bitterness more appealing. This happy coincidence made IPA key to the rise of Burton on Trent as Britain’s brewing powerhouse.

As a twenty-first century distribution centre Burton is nearly ideal, being right in the middle of the country. But in the years before the railways, ale had to travel from landlocked Burton along the river Trent to Hull or by canal and road to Liverpool. Traditional ales did not travel well, but the quantity of hops used in IPA to help it survive the journey to India was also useful on its 100-mile journey to the coast. Burton IPAs were introduced into port cities and allowed Burton brewers such as Bass to compete with local brewers in other regions. By the 1840s, when the railways had begun to make national distribution easier, Burton brewers such as Bass already had agents in many of the major port cities. As other brewers scrambled to compete, the national spread of Burton-brewed ales was responsible for a change in tastes across the British Isles so that by the twentieth century brewers routinely ‘Burtonised’ their brewing water.

A similar shift in taste took place in the twentieth century. Since the late 1960s British drinkers have swung away from traditional ales and settled on lager as their beer style of choice. Most of these lagers are bland, nondescript and at best inoffensive, but they are certainly popular. Carling, which is brewed, ironically enough, in Burton on Trent, is Britain’s best-selling beer. In the last few years though, things have been changing. In the face of rising commodity prices, rising taxation, declining pub sales, and downward pressure on price from the supermarkets, traditionally brewed ales have been making a comeback and small brewers seem to be springing up everywhere. In fact sales of ‘real’ ales are rising despite an otherwise flat or falling overall market. Where there is quality, the effects of financial crisis and fiscal meltdown seem to be felt least of all.

So what about IPA and where might it stand in the apparent trend back towards real ale?

Not long ago I had a conversation with a group of friends and the subject of beer came up, as it often does. One of the women asked what that delicious lager was that they had been drinking a few weeks earlier and interestingly the ‘lager’ in question turned out to be Innovation, an award-winning, hoppy American-style IPA brewed by Adnams. One of the great things about Innovation, and many other ales of its type, is that it can stand being drunk straight from the fridge without losing any of that wonderful flavour, making it ideal for the exact situation where lager has dominated. Curiously, while the big name lagers are mostly bland affairs, aimed at the undiscriminating palate, what this little anecdote suggests is that big flavours are not necessarily a problem.

This is a small point, but an interesting one I think. The woman who asked the question is not an ale drinker and would turn down a pint of bitter. But she loved Innovation and what’s more she remembered it, even if she didn’t know what it was. Crucially, she would drink it again, if she saw it. If brewers could get IPAs of this type in front of a enough drinkers of premium lagers I think we might have a real cultural shift on our hands. A problem for smaller and independent brewers is that two generations of drinkers have grown up with the idea that lager is more refreshing, more ‘easy drinking’ than other kinds of beer. Hoppy, zesty IPAs could be the ales to change that perception.