'IPA' Doesn't Only Mean India Pale Ale Anymore — and That's OK

From www.chicagotribune.com by Josh Noel
The acronym is quickly becoming shorthand for 'hop-forward'
beer!

This week, we brought you the story of two new beers at the iconic Billy Goat Tavern that are in fact two not-so-new beers.

Billy Goat IPA and Billy Goat Pilsner are actually two pre-existing beers from Baderbrau Brewing that have been given new cans and the power of the Billy Goat brand.

Billy Goat Pilsner is, in reality, Baderbrau’s flagship Chicago Pilsener. No problem.

The rub comes with Billy Goat IPA: It’s actually Baderbrau’s Lawnmower Lager, a hop-forward summer seasonal release. That’s right. The “India pale ale” is in fact an India pale lager.

(Beer 101: Ales ferment warmer and for shorter amounts of time. Lagers ferment colder, with different yeast and for longer.)

A question emerged: Why is a lager being packaged as an IPA? Baderbrau co-founder Rob Sama explained the contradiction as an effort to make things easier for customers who want a hop-forward beer.

“Ease of understanding,” he said.

While anything that misleads customers — whether malevolently or not — will always justifiably come into question, there's an argument that Baderbrau and Billy Goat aren’t far off the mark: IPA, in the current landscape, no longer means "India pale ale." It means "hoppy beer."

Let’s pull it apart, starting with the name itself.

India pale ale, as the indispensable “Oxford Companion to Beer” tells us, “gained its name thanks to its huge popularity in British India and other outposts of the British Empire throughout the 19th century, a result of its keeping abilities on long sea voyages and its refreshing character when it finally reached its destination.”

The key ingredient in India pale ale was hops, which “would help preserve beer over long periods” — such as the oceanic voyage from England to India.

Speed up the clock, and India pale ale, in all its fruity-piney-bitter glory, has become the engine of an American craft-beer industry now up to 6,000 breweries and counting.

Back to the name. Does India have anything to do with the towering dominance of hoppy beer these days? Obviously not. In their current bright and citrus-forward incarnation, IPAs are an American innovation, made in all 50 states and exported from here to the world.

What about pale? That’s a longtime favorite subject of beer folks, and as has been well established, not all IPAs are pale. Hazy IPA — also known as New England style IPA — is anything but pale; it’s a turbid and murky visual mess, often more akin to orange juice than any beer that would be described as “pale.” A few years back, during the brief popularity of black IPAs, scorn rained down both for how the beers tasted — they’re difficult to do well — and for their name. “How is a beer both pale and black?” the skeptics crowed.

They were right, of course. But it was ultimately nitpicking because the meaning of “IPA” had evolved. It was no longer literal shorthand for “India pale ale.” It was IPA — a new concept unto itself. A new word unto itself. It was a word not meant to invoke a particular color or India, but a flavor: hop-forwardness. Now that evolution has gone to the next logical step. It doesn’t even stand for how the beer is made. As long as it delivers a burst of hops, it has done its job.

I do see two legitimate gripes with Billy Goat IPA. One is that, yes, Baderbrau and Billy Goat probably should explain somewhere on the can that the beer is in fact a lager. Transparency is always the right answer.

The other gripe is more obscure: its use of periods. The beer is labeled as an “I.P.A.” — periods implying that the capital letters stand for something. They don’t. The beer isn’t an India pale ale.

It’s an IPA — a deliciously hoppy beer.

jbnoel@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @hopnotes

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