Giving the Americans an IPA history lesson

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Beer festival Beer

Making a point: our man Roger Protz gives a talk at the World Beer Festival in Durham, North Carolina
Making a point: our man Roger Protz gives a talk at the World Beer Festival in Durham, North Carolina
India Pale Ale was a beer designed to travel, and it keeps on going. First brewed in England in the 19th century for export to India and other British colonies, it has become a cult style in the United States.

So great is the interest in IPA in the US that I was invited to give two talks and tastings on the subject at the World Beer Festival in Durham, North Carolina. Durham is a fascinating, split-personality town. The centre is dominated by red-brick buildings that once housed giant tobacco companies. Smoke stacks bear such famous names as Camel and Lucky Strike but the industry has gone, the brands now made elsewhere from imported tobacco leaf.

The other face of Durham is Duke University, an elite seat of learning specialising in medical studies. The Duke family designed the university to resemble Princeton, which in turn was based on Oxford. After the bright red-brick of the former tobacco factories, it was something of a culture shock to see the grey stone, quietly dignified buildings at Duke, with deep-set mullioned windows.

The beer festival, organised by Daniel Bradford, publisher of All About Beer Magazine, was held at Durham Bulls’ baseball park. This was my first visit to a baseball ground and I tried to explain to my guests that British schoolchildren play a similar game called rounders, but it got lost in translation. I offered to explain the differences between baseball and cricket but was advised, wisely, to stick to beer.

Unlike baseball, the beer festival was familiar to me. Thousands of keen-eyed people came pouring in to sample a wide range of beers sold from marquees. The drinkers were mainly young and this could have been a Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) festival back home, save for the fact that the beers were not cask-conditioned.

My two talks were packed, the listeners attentive, and the questions and the beer flowed. Julie Johnson, a fine American beer writer and a contributor to All About Beer Magazine, puts it well: “America has past, Britain has history”, and the crowd was fascinated by the story of brewing in Burton-on-Trent.

I explained that ale was first brewed in the town by monks at Burton Abbey, founded in the 11th century. When abbeys and monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII, commercial brewing developed in Burton and by the 18th century the town was famous for Burton Ale, a strong beer exported to Russia and the Baltic States.

That trade was lost when the French blockaded the Baltic ports early in the 19th century. Most of the Burton breweries closed and the remaining few were encouraged by the mighty East India Company, which controlled trade to the sub-continent, to turn their attention there. But they were advised to produce a beer that was paler and more refreshing than the strong, nut-brown Burton Ales.

A London brewer named Hodgson had had considerable success with his “India Ale” and the Burton brewers, including Allsopp, Bass and Worthington, hurried to produce a similar type of beer — pale, well-hopped and sparkling. They were aided by the remarkable spring waters of the Trent Valley, rich in such sulphates as gypsum and magnesium, which emphasised the rich malt and hop character of the new beers.

As a result, the India Pale Ales from Burton rapidly eclipsed Hodgson’s efforts and the Midlands town became renowned throughout the world for its pale ales. By the end of the 19th century, Bass had grown to become the biggest brewer in the world, producing more than a million barrels of beer a year.

IPA’s heyday was short-lived. It was driven out of the colonies by the arrival of lager, exported by German and then American brewers. But the style has returned in a dramatic fashion in recent years. There are now scores of British brewers producing fine examples of the style and the baton has passed to the Americans who have used their passion and commitment to produce remarkable examples of IPA.

My talk was interspersed with tastings of four American IPAs from Brooklyn Brewery in New York City, Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas in California, and New Belgium in Colorado. All four burst with great hop character and were fine versions of the style.

My final IPA was tasted not at the festival but at Top of the Hill, a smart restaurant and brewpub in the Chapel Hill district of Durham. The head brewer had a familiar face: John Withey. I last met John 20 years ago when he was head brewer with Shepherd Neame in Kent. He has been brewing at Top of the Hill for 17 years and his 15-barrel plant produces lager, wheat beer, porter and IPA.

Withey took me down one floor from the main bar to a second one where IPA and porter are drawn by handpumps from nine-gallon firkins kept at 54°F.

Like his IPA, Withey is a great flagbearer for English ale abroad.

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