Book Review: IPA by Mitch Steele

India Pale Ale No. 1

This single-topic epic by Mitch Steele, ‘brewmaster’ at Stone Brewing Co. in California, contains more information about India pale ale (IPA) than most people will need or want to know, and only brewers will get full value from it. Detail junkies, however, will find plenty in which to wallow.

IPA-cover-197x315We don’t know Steele or anything about him and went into IPA: brewing techniques, recipes and the evolution of India pale ale expecting something, after the house style of his employers, ‘aggressive’ and ‘passionate’ in style. In fact, the tone is quietly scholarly, and reassuringly deferential to researchers and historians who have gone before, such as Mark Dorber, Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell. Nor is there any sense that this is a publicity opportunity for Stone: where they are mentioned, it is only where it might have seemed crazy to omit them.

The first half of the book is among the best attempts to synthesise the entire confusing history of IPA in the light of recent work by Pattinson, Cornell and others. Steele acknowledges that some old myths have been demolished without crowing about it, and negotiates the intricacies of the story (the sticking points, you might say) with care. East London and Burton upon Trent are given due attention and credit, before the focus switches, rightly, to America and the American influence elsewhere. All the history is thoroughly referenced, too, with footnotes on almost every page. (If you are put off by footnotes, go and watch Spongebob Squarepants or something and stop ruining books for everyone else.)

Our favourite nuggets: the story in the introduction about Anheuser-Busch’s abortive attempts to brew an IPA in the 2006; the slyly euphemistic admission that many American ‘double IPAs’ have levels of ‘hoppiness’ only possible using ‘alternative hop products’; and another excellent if unsuccessful attempt to pin down ‘black IPA’, which makes it sound like strong, hoppy dark mild.

Brewers and home brewers will be excited by the second half of the book which, thanks to Steele’s industry connections, contains recipes for a startling number of well-regarded recent IPAs, along with historical recipes from trusted sources. We were particularly fascinated to see a recipe for Thornbridge Jaipur, though a little bird at the brewery told us it had been tweaked in recent years and no longer contains Vienna malt as per Steele’s instructions. There are also some clever selections: J.W. Lees Harvest Ale is included as the best present-day equivalent of an ‘October Beer’ (the ancestor of IPA), and their Manchester Star as an example of an ‘East India Porter’, the original ‘black IPA’.

One of our favourite parts of the book is at the back: a short guide to interpreting historic brewing records. Ron Pattinson coached us through this St Austell recipe from 1912 but, from now on, IPA will act as a handy desk reference for attempts to decode the mysterious scribblings of long-dead brewers.

The obligatory last paragraph complaint before we sum up? Perhaps as a result of attempting to be diplomatic at every turn, Steele ends up lacking much in the way of a voice, and the book can be a touch dry at times, which made us wish this had been a straight-up collaboration with Pattinson and/or Cornell, both of whom can be trusted to put the boot in now and again. Overall, though, like For the Love of Hops, it is much more than a text book and well worth any beer geek adding to their library.

The book has 352 pages and was published by Brewers Publications in 2012. We bought our copy through Amazon for £10.44 but the US retail price is $24.95.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: IPA by Mitch Steele”

  1. Actually, Mitch and I talked before he started the book, when he was over in the UK researching and talking to brewers here, and he sent me the “historical” bits to have a look over before the book went to print, but of course it’s all his book. (Disclosure: he gave me an “Arrogant Bastard” T-shirt …)

  2. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Mitch. He’s a really nice, thoughtful, intelligent individual. I am currently waiting for my autographed copy to arrive in the mail (I have a friend at Stone who hooked me up.)

  3. I don’t know what “East India porter” was like, but I think anyone sampling Manchester Star and looking for a porter would be sorely disappointed – it’s black, malty and sweet, without any stout (or IPA) character that I can identify. I’d call it an old ale or possibly a Burton. (I like it a lot, particularly when the weather’s a bit colder than it is now.)

    another excellent if unsuccessful attempt to pin down ‘black IPA’, which makes it sound like strong, hoppy dark mild

    That reminds me of the Beer Nut’s description of Marble Stouter Stout, back in 2007:

    a very sharp, bitter, but creamy stout. The abundance of hops is there right from the nose and is carried through in the strong rich bitter flavours. For a stout this is just too tart to my taste: IPA dressed as stout and off-puttingly weird, despite the care and attention that obviously went into making it

    Emphasis added.

  4. A hoppy mild? Hmmm, not a contradiction in terms? A black IPA tastes like an (American) IPA with a dash of roast malt or other agent to darken the colour and lend a very slight roasty quality. It is a derivation of C-hop IPA and isn’t connected to mild ale or porter at all IMO.

    Good review of a book I haven’t read, i.e., it makes me want to read it and indicates its likely strengths and weaknesses.

    Gary

    1. Gary — isn’t ‘a contradiction in terms’ the whole point of black IPA? Dark milds tend to be black or almost black, but without any notable roasted flavour, which I guess is the connection in our mind.

      Phil — East India porters were (as we understand from Ron Pattinson) heavily hopped, but, as with IPA proper, probably mellowed on the journey out. We’ve still never managed to get our hands on a bottle of Manchester Star (grr!) so can’t dispute your tasting notes, but Mitch reckons its from an archival EIPA recipe.

      1. Pretty Things East India Porter (http://www.prettythingsbeertoday.com/wp/our-beers/once-upon-a-time/once-upon-a-time-eip/) was brewed with Ron’s guidance. It was brewed with brown and pale malt and Kent Goldings and Spalt hops and came out to 6% ABV and 93 IBUs. But it wasn’t aged at all (at least according to Dann when I asked him about it). I was at the release party in Boston a few years ago and had the cask, keg, and bottled versions and all of them were amazing. I set aside a few bottles and frankly they were better fresh. But I’m an American, so my opinion can’t be trusted on these things. But I will say that I would choose EIP over any black IPA on the market.

        As for Mitch’s book, I’ve been reading it for the last few weeks and I just brewed a Pliny the Elder clone using tips from this book. I can’t recommend it enough.

  5. To the point of likening the two contradictions, point taken, but in taste terms I’d argue a hoppy mild is more like the American brown ale, which is an English-type brown or mild ale with the distinctive C-hop taste or that type. I always get a slight roast quality in Black IPA which is different to the luscious taste of a brown ale.

    Black IPA is one of those conundrums but it’s down to the inapt name. I think it is shorthand really for an “IPA which we will add a dash of stout to to change the character bit”. Another way to look at it is, it is a half and half which is light on the stout. Guinness and Bass pale ale were often mixed in the States in the pre-craft days.

    Gary

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