A Better History of American IPA

Source: Ron Pattinson
It was never preordained for the United States to develop an industry of 2500 independent breweries by 2013.  It took the extraordinary work of a vanguard of pioneers to till the soil and make ready the flowering to come. Among that handful of important figures, few stand taller than Charlie Papazian, and we rightly hold him in high esteem.  But he isn't a great historian of brewing, and his current blog post about IPAs gets a ton of stuff wrong.  It's a problem precisely because he's held in such high regard by so many people.  I don't want to do a point-by-point dissection of the post (though use the opportunity to read Martyn Cornell's multi-post exegeses on IPAs if you're feeling hazy on the history). 

Instead, I'd rather tackle the heart of Charlie's argument and make an important global point about brewing history and America's role in it.  
The second reason why hoppy beers have become popular in the USA is that successful American craft brewers have learned how to use new, modern and innovative techniques to extract the complex characters of American hops...  Not until the last decade of the 20th century did American craft brewers really perfect their methods to infuse maximum and varied hop character into their beer.
This is just wrong.  Beer has brewed on this planet since before civilization (making dating its origins tricky), but probably in the neighborhood of eight thousand years.  In that long time, brewers have made exactly three watershed discoveries.  Just three!
  1. They learned to malt grain.  Again, we're pre-history here, so it's all murky, but archaeologists have found evidence of a proto-beer made from unmalted barley and wheat.  (They call it "gruel beer.")  It was very weak because humans hadn't yet figured out how to unlock the sugary potential of the grain kernel.  By the time the Sumerians and Egyptians were writing about beer, they had.
  2. They figured out how to use hops.  For seven thousand years, brewers tried to balance the sweetness of fermented grain with myriad spices.  Eventually someone--probably a monk--figured out that if you boil wort with hops in it, the resultant beer will last a great deal longer.   Because hops are very strongly flavored, it took centuries for the innovation to become a standard practice.
  3. They figured out the microbiology of yeast.  Brewers knew about yeast, but they didn't know what it was or exactly how it worked.  Pasteur taught them that it was a biological process and within a few decades, they had learned how to control souring microorganisms in a way that had eluded brewers for 7,850 years.  Some ignored the information; most did not.
That's it.  One of the things you realize if you pore through the records of old beer is that nothing is new.  If you've been brewing for a few years and an idea occurred to you while you were showering one morning, go ahead and assume that it had passed the brain of another brewer in the centuries before you picked up the mashing fork.  Not only are we not brewing unusual beers now, we're brewing stuff that looks incredibly tame by the standards of the old brewer.  Those guys brewed weird.  They made titanic beers; they made tiny beers.  They made beers with tons of hops--and beers with very few.  They made light beers, dark beers, wheat beers, sour beers, beers with beans and eggs, beers with chimney soot.  They boiled some of their beers for 18 hours and others they didn't boil at all. 

The United States, if we keep our eye on the ball for the next century, may well become an important brewing country.  If we manage the trick, it won't be because we've done something new, it will be because we've done something well enough that it has developed its own contours and lines.  It will have become distinct and identifiable.  People will taste a beer and, as when they sample a cask bitter, helles lager, or abbey ale, know the country from which it came. 

IPAs look to be a good candidate for part of that development.  They have particular characteristics (though ones that are in a state of flux) that make them a cohesive group.  They have begun to capture the attention of the population.  But let's not kid ourselves: strong, hoppy ales are hardly new.  It wasn't our cleverness or modern techniques that made them take off.  We have great hops here, vivid and varied, but great hops have been in use, in different countries, for nearly a thousand years.  It takes an equal measure of hubris and historical ignorance to think we've invented something new.  (Sort of like how Europeans "discovered" America.)  We have found a style that harnesses local ingredients and expresses our flavor preferences, and we've stuck with the style for about a decade.  All good.  But we have more work to do.

Be leery of claims about America's import in the brewing world.  Few endeavors have a longer history or have been practiced by more people over the millennia.  It is an exciting time to live, and thanks to technological advances and a shrinking world, more styles of beer are available to Americans than have ever been available to one nation before.  But we didn't invent those styles or the methods of brewing them and, even when we can maybe fool ourselves into thinking an idea is new, it's best to start with the assumption it's not.