When is an IPA not an IPA?

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

I’ll be the first to admit the title of this post is slightly misleading because what I’ve been thinking about over the last few weeks is how several of the beers I’ve drank recently should have been classed as an IPA but they haven’t mentioned those three immortal little letters on their label. With modern craft IPA being such a beer du jour it should make sense that in order to sell more of your beer you should print those three letters in a giant font on your label in order to suck in hop perverts like myself. Not all brewers are in it for the money (although it’s surely a motivational aspect of your chosen career) but it seems to be absolutely essential for craft breweries to include a well hopped IPA in their resume.

Plenty of room on this label for three more letters

Take, just as an example, New Belgium in the USA. They specialise in producing modern and very Americanised takes on classic Belgian styles of beer but one of their best sellers is Range, which is an incredibly well hopped IPA. Now correct me if I’m wrong but last time I checked those funky Belgian monks weren’t chucking armfuls of Cascade and Chinook into their mash tuns. Unsurprisingly Ranger sells very well, it’s a fantastic beer and no doubt some of the revenue this beer generates funds their more experimental brews such as Biere de Mars and La Folie.

The modern style of IPA, heavily dry-hopped with lashings of American hops is without question my favourite style of beer, I could drink it all day long and quite often do. After drinking the two beers I’m going to look at during the course of this blog my mind cogs started whirring, they definitely had all the qualities of a solid IPA but they don’t play on this fact in order to shift more units. Perhaps their brewmasters do not consider these beers to be IPAs, maybe they are off-kilter or perhaps something else entirely? When you think about it, when does pale ale become India pale ale?

Surely this is indicated by an ABV of at least 5.5% or above (if it’s not been watered down of course) and has been well hopped to ‘survive its journey across the ocean’. Of course much of the IPA we drink today hasn’t been brewed to survive an arduous ocean journey, we just like the way it tastes, so why the hell do we still label it with the word India when that doesn’t really have a great deal of association with this beer in it’s modern form. Of course it would be incredibly bold and very wrong of me to dismiss centuries of brewing history with one swing of a stick but have you ever though just how relevant the IPA tag really is in modern brewing?

Of course it says IPA so that beer lovers like us can find the beers WE want to drink, for me those three little letters simply indicate that this might just be another great beer waiting to be discovered. The first of the two beers I’m going to devour during the course of this article fails to mention this anywhere obvious on it’s simple yet incredibly effective label and that beer is Marble Dobber. It was down to the recommendation of others that I discovered the Marble brewery who unlike many of their fellow Northern Craft Brewers seem to shun mass social networking and their website gives very little information away. If you Google any Marble beer you are met not with a well designed and thoughtful website but instead with a plethora of blogs that almost unanimously sing their praise and it is because of us, the bloggers that Marble have gained such a stalwart reputation.

The first couple of Marble beers I had were very enjoyable, I really like their Lagonda IPA and their Chocolate Stout is one of my favourite examples of that style but it was when I finally got hold of my first bottle of Dobber that Marble gained a special place in my heart. I’m sure many of you reading this (in the UK at least) will have tried and loved Dobber, it leaps out of the bottle lively as anything, smacks you round the face with huge chunks of pineapple, heaving great slabs of mango and hides almost all but a smidgen of booze which lingers in the back of your throat as you swallow. In a decades time we will still be drinking this beer with hushed reverence, it’s a beautifully British example of a modern craft IPA, or is it? For me it most definitely is, it has all the hallmarks that make craft IPAs great, huge hops on a massive malt backbone perfectly balanced and dangerously drinkable. Would it be even more popular if the minimalist pea-green label said Dobber IPA?

That little red bastard owl stole my wallet

I am a man of simple mind, I am easily taken in when a selection of cool ‘n’ kooky new beers shimmy into town and this was most definitely the case when Hitachino Nest beers arrived in the UK. I immediately fell in love with that little owl and had to procure some of their beers, if I was quick enough I could maybe blog about them before anyone else and how cool would that be! When I did finally get hold of some I thought of how silly I had been and decided, like with most of the beer I drink to just enjoy it, by myself, in the comfort of my own home. I often wonder if the Internet really needs to know of each and every beer I consume complete with ‘arty’ photo taken on Instagram. I know some of you like it, and I love seeing what other people are drinking but I can’t help but feel that many of my non-beery mates are simply baffled by this activity. So sometimes I don’t tell the Internet what I’m drinking, but that’s not because I don’t love you all very much, it’s because it still sometimes feels a little bit silly.

So I wasn’t going to blog about the quite frankly excellent beers from Hitachino Nest but I felt that their Nipponia was quite suited to this post, in fact it probably inspired it. This well malted and well hopped brew uses the Kaneki Golden barley malt and the now world renowned Sorachi Ace hop. Nipponia is simply described on its label as ‘ale’ and weighs in at a reasonable 6.5% ABV but are we in IPA territory? Well if American breweries can use all American ingredients and describe a beer as an IPA and if British breweries can use all British ingredients and describe a beer as an IPA then why can’t the Japanese?

Nipponia pours a very pale gold colour and produces a nice creamy head that leaves a ring of foam around the edge of the glass. It has a pungent nose of jasmine, melon and elderflower with just a hint of caramel and has some lively carbonation going on in the glass. For me the Sorachi Ace hop provides a very herbal almost medicinal flavour which is very much present in this beer but there are also hints of lemongrass and lychee with the malt tasting of rice cakes that have been dipped  brown sugar. The finish is bone dry, the beer is wonderfully refreshing and despite the slightly medicinal taste I was left begging for another sip. It’s a quintessentially Japanese take on a style of beer that is dominated by brews from the US and the UK (not forgetting a certain Danish Gypsy brewer of course) but once again I ask the question, is this beer an IPA?

If this beer wanted to be an IPA and it wore that badge proudly on its label then I would accept it as an IPA but Nipponia refuses to be labelled as such, standing it’s own ground despite sharing so many similarities with the style. Is IPA a deserving genre of beer of its own or is it merely a label that has been bastardised by breweries with huge marketing departments and then lovingly adopted by the craft beer scene as the sign of a truly great beer. Realistically it doesn’t really matter how a brewery wants to label its beer, as long as they are brewing good shit then I’ll continue to throw money at it and drink into the night with reckless abandon.