IPAs: A Hoppy History with Cicerone Coby Glass
When I emailed local Cicerone, professional beer tour guide, and all-around lover of suds Coby Glass to advise me in a simple beer pairing matter for National IPA Day, I had no idea that I was setting myself for an afternoon of hands-on beer education. Expecting a reply along the lines of “She-Crab soup goes great with an IPA”, I was a bit surprised when Coby requested to speak on the phone, and even more surprised when that phone conversation turned into an inquiry of my intentions. “Were you wanting this to be more entertaining or educational?” asked Coby. I told him I was hoping to include a little of column A and a little of column B. Being a seasoned tour guide, he understood perfectly. “It’s like these bachelorette parties I have on tours. Some of them really want to listen and learn something, and some of them just want to take selfies.” The sticking point for Coby, he explained, was that the history of IPAs – the very term itself – is complicated, fluid, and a little capricious. There’s a lot more to it than a simple pairing and a cute pic of shrimp and grits next to a frosty pint. And he wanted to do that history justice. He suggested we sit down together, at a distance, for a bit of a tasting. If you know me, you know that I’m up for any excuse to chat and quaff a few. So we met under the shade of the enormous live oak trees in Hampton Park, and I got a beer lover’s history lesson.
India Pale Ale finds its origins in the British Raj – the 90 year period during which Britain held its colonizer’s grip on India. British military and administrative officers stationed in the subcontinent found that their long-beloved English ales fared poorly on the 6 month, unrefrigerated sea journey from England to South Asia. Among its many impressive natural properties (to be discussed in more detail in a future blog), hops act as a stabilizing component to beer, standing as a bulwark against the destructive properties of temperature and time. Thus, the traditional pale ale was altered to include more hops and more malt – to negate the bitter, hoppy flavor that we now associate with an IPA. The Sam Smith India Ale we tasted as an example of this early iteration is balanced and malty, with just a hint of hoppy character – nothing like the hop-forward IPAs of today. On the subject of what dish would go best with this now rare style, Coby suggested that it needs no accompaniment. “If you can find one, you should just enjoy it on it’s own.” These words would prove prescient. When I returned to Edmund’s Oast Beer Exchange (Coby’s favorite local beer shop, and his source for our tasting selection) to track down a bottle, there were no more to be had.
Alongside Indian Independence in the mid 20th century, interest in IPAs waned. The style had all but evaporated from the market when microbreweries, passionate about their craft and willing to explore beer styles outside of the familiar, brought the American craft beer renaissance into full swing through the 1990s and early aughts. The IPA found fresh status in this brave new world of American brewing as the perfect beer to show off the latest varieties of American hops being cultivated in the Willamette Valley (yes, the wine Willamette Valley). Varieties like Cascade and Centennial brought a piney zip to the new IPAs being produced by young, aspirational microbreweries, and the West Coast IPA became synonymous with “craft beer” in the minds of beer drinkers. The style still abounds, and Coby brought along Revelry’s Lefty Loosey for us to sample. “Fish tacos, or ceviche tacos would be best with this,” he suggested, noting that the flavor of a tortilla would help to pull out the bready notes in the beer, while fresh seafood would be well complimented by Lefty Loosey’s bright, snappy hop character.
It’s here that the story of the IPA took the turn I was really curious about – the turn into extreme hoppiness. What began as an innocent interest in crafting beer that best displayed the qualities of American hops seemed to rapidly turn into an all-out hop war. Breweries attempted to draw attention to their product by pushing the limits of IBUs (International Bittering Units – a real scale by which hoppiness in beer is measured). It’s here that we see the rise of the “palate-wreckers” – the DIPAs and TIPAs; double and triple-hopped beers that dry the tongue with aggressively bitter character. Coby regaled me with tales of hops becoming scarce in the wake of Californian wildfires, and breweries eager to use them once they’d again become readily available. But, in essence, it seemed that the American beer drinker had metamorphosed into the American craft beer drinker, and the dutiful craft beer drinker had become something of a hop addict. These styles tend to feature strong bittering hops such as Chinook and Amarillo, and while their extra-assertive flavor makes it difficult to drink more than one or two in a sitting, Coby suggested a stellar food pairing. “Fatty meat really goes well with these,” he opined, as we tasted Coast’s Boy King (not as eye-wateringly hoppy as some others on the market, but packing a serious punch). “Duck, anything gamey. Actually, those duck fat fries…” and by the grace of being an avid eater and drinker-out living in Charleston, I knew exactly what he meant. Tattooed Moose’s indulgent duck fat fries with roasted garlic are the perfect sturdy contender to accompany a hop monster like Boy King.
As tends to happen with culinary trends, the pendulum of taste eventually swung back on the extra-hoppy IPAs of the aught-teens. IPA drinkers have begun to crave something more “sessionable” – that is, something one can sit down and drink a bunch of, without feeling wrung out by the sheer bitterness of it all. A new breed of New England or “Hazy” IPAs strike a perfect balance for a beer drinker like myself – they’re hoppy enough to wake up the palate without completely overwhelming the taste buds. “Juicy” hops like Citra or Mosaic deliver a citrusy, mellow character that lends itself well to a breezy evening (or afternoon…) of multiple pints consumed with friends. We tried Edmund’s Oast Brewing Company’s Bound By Time, and the beautiful, hazy quality of the beer in the glass was nearly as lovely as the beer’s flavor – orangey, bright, and lightly sweet. Coby was adamant that the citrus quality of a Hazy IPA would pair beautifully with a citrus or raspberry vinaigrette-dressed salad.
Among the most fascinating takeaways from my sit-down with Coby was the revelation that the term “IPA”, while seeming to evoke a definitive style in the mind of most casual beer drinkers, isn’t officially designated as one specific type of beer at all. “It’s not regulated by anyone,” he mentioned, in relaying the tale of a local brewery that rebranded an excellent but underselling beer as an IPA, simply to drum up taproom interest, to great success. This, the undefinable qualities of beer – easy to assign adjectives to but hard to really pin down, sat at the heart of why he felt the in-person tasting was necessary. To talk about beer and all of what makes it wonderful is one thing, but anyone will tell you that the best education comes from experience.
If you’re envious of my afternoon IPA tutorial with Coby (as you should be), you can visit our website to book our Pubs, Taverns, and Taprooms Tour, or our Charleston Brews Cruise and receive your own lesson from a true beer scholar, while sampling bevs from some of Charleston best local breweries!