Wednesday, October 14, 2009

IPA - The Really Old-Fashioned Way (Plus a Q-and-A with the Brewer)

BrewDog broke into the malted beverage world with a goal to shake up the stereotype of beers coming out of the United Kingdom. A few heather honey-infused ales and 18.2% oak-aged stouts later and the Scottish brewery can pretty much consider its mission accomplished.

But the latest experiment from the upstart Scots may be their most daring and interesting yet. Co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie lashed eight barrels (at least originally) of Brew Dog's Punk IPA to a North Atlantic trawler to simulate the voyage that English IPA made on its trip to India in the 19th century, a video that you can see here.

The origins of IPA have been discussed a lot lately, including in an excellent article entitled "Mythbusting the IPA" in the coming November issue of All About Beer magazine. No matter when it was made or why it became so popular in both India and England, however, one thing is for sure: the beer spent a lot of time in rocky conditions in a barrel, and its flavor sprang partly from that.

So, when tasting Brew Dog's experimental Atlantic IPA, which is neither distinctly UK-bred nor distinctly American, you're struck by a few things. First, there really is a barrel-aged quality to the creation, especially the vanilla, almost oak-hewn character that surfaces on the back of your tongue after several sips.

Secondly, though there is an initial push of typical IPA bitterness on your taste buds, the turbulent aging seems to have smoothed out the English hops, making them assertive without being caustic, noticeable without being attention-grabbing. This tastes, frankly, like something that has been stirred up and blended, leaving it complex yet balanced even as repeated sips of the 8.5% ABV beer warm your mouth and remind you of the alcohol presence.

Atlantic IPA is being sold for $25.99 a bottle in very limited quantities in a handful of cities around the globe (sorry Denverites, you'll have to call friends elsewhere in the U.S. to ask them to snag you a bottle).

I had the opportunity to e-mail a few questions to James Watt about the project. Here's what he had to say about big ideas, barrel aging and shelling out a few bucks for a piece of history:

1) Ed: Where on earth did you come up with the idea to age the beer in this way?
James: IPA’s were traditionally made in England and sent to India by sea. Hops act as a preservative in beer, thus these beers were highly hopped which combined with the high alcohol meant they had the best chance of withstanding the sea journey to India. This fine tradition of brewing IPA in the UK is more than 250 years old. However, I was disillusioned with the fact that in modern times IPA had come to stand for nothing more than a scarcely hopped blonde session ale in the UK with people merely using the name ‘IPA’ for the sake of it.

We were determined to bring the style right back to its roots as a response to what we saw as the death of the IPA tradition in the UK. I sail 8 weeks a year a as a North Atlantic Captain and when Martin found a recipe for a 200 year old IPA it just made sense to tie the whole thing up together and make as authentic an IPA as we could.

This IPA is brewed to a traditional 200 year old recipe and then aged in oak casks on the north Atlantic for 2 months making it the first IPA aged in oak at sea for 2 centuries, the first genuine IPA for over 200 years. With a huge interest in the IPA style all over the world we thought it would be great to brew one which resembled the origins of the style as closely as we could, all whilst having a cool little adventure along the way.

2) Ed: What, in your opinion, has this kind of aging done to the flavor of the beer compared to a non Atlantic-sailing Punk IPA?
James: The oak and Atlantic aging has had a huge effect on the beer. The fact the beer was in near constant motion means it has become very oxidised, giving it some sour qualities. The salinity is apparent all over the beer too and you can almost taste the epic waves crashing down on the barrel with every sip. The use of traditional English hops also give the beer a far more grungy, herbal and earthy quality as opposed to the citrus edge of most modern US IPAs.

3) Ed: Where in the world (literally) can you find the limited quantity of this beer for sale?
James: The Atlantic IPA is available in limited quantities and is only available in select markets. Select markets include: New York, Chicago, Boston, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

4) Ed: Why decide to charge $25.99 American for this, and do you think that will scare away beer enthusiasts who otherwise might want to try it?
James: I do not think the price will scare anyone away. If we want to scare people, we will show them me dangling in a tiny basket, up to my waist in freezing seas on January 2nd trying to recover the lost cask, we will show them the footage of 70ft waves crashing down on the boat and breaking over the casks of beer, we will show them 30 hour stints on deck in the freezing North Atlantic wintertime. All that will scare them. For buying a piece of brewing history, one of only 2,000 bottles, the beautiful hand-drawn label and the first authentic IPA for 200 years, $25.99 should not be nearly as scary as what we went through to make the beer!

5) Ed: Will there be a repeat voyage? If not, do you have a next experiment like this in mind?
James: The BrewDog Team has a history of exciting imaginations, so please stay tuned for the October 21st announcement.


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