Beer history Beer styles

When Big IPAs Were Rare

Anchor Liberty Ale IPA

Do you remember how we were back in ’05? (A waltz begins to play, distantly.) We were so young and carefree, and the Cask vs. Keg storm brewing on the horizon didn’t worry us. We thought we were invincible!

As Alan has pointed out (prompting a mild case of anxiety on our part), writing about very recent history is a risky business. Yesterday, we found ourselves struggling to recall what the UK beer scene was actually like in 2005-06, with some objectivity.

It’s feels like yesterday but, the more we read, the more it’s apparent how things have changed. It was hard, for example, to find full-bodied, heavily-hopped American-style IPAs in supposedly cosmopolitan London. They existed, but they took some hunting down, and a large part of their value was their rarity.

Meantime’s big IPA was one of the few British examples we were able to get our hands on with any ease, and it seemed a very big, boozy beer. It’s certainly no wonder Thornbridge Jaipur was greeted with such raptures in 2005.

Nowadays, any brewery aiming at the ‘craft’ segment of the market will have an IPA as a core beer in its range, rather than a limited edition ‘specialty’. They’ll probably also make a double IPA, a black IPA, twenty-four single-hopped IPAs, and one which has been cross-bred with a saison.

Those beers we thought were massively hopped, strong, and mind-blowingly intense have been devalued through inflation.

We aren’t the first to ask: are IPAs the new ‘boring brown bitter’?

What’s going to be really odd is 2007 onwards: like Marty McFly or Doctor Who, we’ll be going back through our own blogging timeline hunting for evidence.

33 replies on “When Big IPAs Were Rare”

My brother have been having the same thought recently – “are IPAs the new boring brown bitter?”

I was going to do a blogpost on that theme. You’ve beaten me to it.

Not while there’s still boring brown bitter they’re not. Going into a pub and finding it’s just Oakam Citra and Jaipur is not a problem the way that finding it’s just Bombardier and Director’s is a problem.

Mind you, there are probably drinkers older than me who regard plentiful and cheap Ruddles County as a clear sign of a benevolent God, so rare and highly prized was it once.

I never could stand County, myself.

I’d be equally disappointed with either a choice of Oakam Citra and Jaipur or Bombardier and Director’s. They’re all just variations on the Pale Ale theme. A Porter, a Mild, A Bitter and an Old Ale is what I would call a real choice.

Is curry the new meat and three veg? Well it certainly supplanted it as the nation’s favourite meal and how lucky we are that it did. Let’s hear it for curry! Let’s hear it for IPA!

I remember those heady days just before golden ales became the new boring brown bitter.
Anyone who drank around Salisbury prized Summer Lightning as a hidden local secret.
And then every bastard tried copying it and most failed.

It is in some parts of the world.

In Amsterdam’s Beer Temple the other day, I struggled to find anything I wanted to drink as 75% of the draught sdelection was some form of IPA.

It’s definitely the case in many US “craft” beer bars, wall to wall IPA’s, a few Imperial Stouts and eff all else. That’s why I love Deep Ellum in Boston so much, they acually have a range of different styles on draught, rather than just many variations on the same theme.

And obviously drinkers that are looking for “extreme” “innovative” beers the whole time are going to lose interest quickly in anything that’s too common or avialable. That’s why there’s a whole crowd of people endlessly trying to hunt down Cantillon beers made specially for single pubs.

Me, I’m happy to drink St. Bernardus Abt until I die.

At the Craft Beer Company in Brixton the other week, there was, IIRC, only one draught IPA, so the tide is perhaps already turning. There was also a Graetzer, a strong brown ale, a mild, and several single-hopped ‘pale and hoppy’ bitters. Not a bad variety, really.

It was this one from Westbrook. We didn’t like it much, but then maybe we don’t like Graetzer full stop — we’ll need to try a few different ones before we can be sure!

I have to admit that I didn’t “get” IPA as a beer style until I moved back up Sheffield way in 2009, despite having been a keen real ale drinker down in Essex before that.

I think it will only become the new equivalent of best bitter if people do start moving on towards other beer styles.

It wasn’t that bad — in the late 1990s there was King & Barnes’ India Pale Ale (they also brewed White Shield for a while and one of their seasonal beers was a Brown malt beer), Freeminer’s Trafalgar IPA, Youngs did an Oregon ale with US hops (and their Special London was put out in 500ml bottles), and I remember being at the Safeway’s tasting in 2000 when Mark Dorber at the White Horse was raving over Goose Island’s IPA, which the then beer buyer Glenn Payne had brought in (until Morrisons bought them, Safeway’s beer aisle stocked the likes of Deus, Dogfish Head, Goose Island, Victory and Rogue.

I’ve spent the morning reading old Good Beer Guides from the nineties onwards. There are IPAs there, you’re right, and I’ve picked out Freeminer’s, Mash (Alistair Hook), Burton Bridge Old Empire and a couple of others for further investigation.

Having said that, in 2000, it added up to a handful, and there are probably more, say, saisons in regular production in the UK now than there were IPAs over 5.5% back then.

Marston’s is Old Empire while Burton Bridge’s is Empire Pale Ale — talking about saison off to do one at Brains on Thursday

Youngs Special London was the first heavily-hopped beer I drank, back when it came in dusty 250ml bottles from the back of the shelf in the pub. Michael Jackson was a big fan – perhaps this made it an influence on US IPAs? I remember it tasting like an English Liberty Ale.

Certainly an early one for us, too. I remember finding it overwhelmingly boozy, but I guess I just hadn’t done enough training at that point. Grew to love it, eventually, but then the last one I tasted was a bit crap. (The move to Bedford, or have I been spoiled?)

I’m not much of an indicator really as I only decided some time this year that (on balance) I actually like IPAs as a style. I’d always thought that I only liked the odd one and that most were at one extreme or another (either too dull or too bitter for my tastes). I’m coming round to admitting that I quite them now. So if everyone makes one it won’t bother me. But variety is the spice of life and I certainly wouldn’t want to go into a pub and ONLY be able to drink IPA. That would be tragic.

I dream of a Porter, a Mild, A Bitter and an Old Ale – the last one in particular. I’ve just come back from a beer festival with no old ales.

Was it actually easier to find the older styles – e.g. porters and old ales – in the 70s than it is now, if you knew the pubs to go to? I do wonder.

Phil — probably not porters; died out in 1973 and only revived in 1977. By the nineties, lots of porters listed in the GBG, though. Quick check of a handy 1979 GBG suggests there were a few old ales about, but often seasonal.

I based that comment on a memory of being blown away by Young’s Winter Warmer in a random London pub, circa 1983. Seasonal, yes.

I used to quite like Owd Rodger on draught in London in the 1980s, rather mind numbing at the time it felt like — the absinthe of beer, felt like Hemingway after three pints…

You might have felt like Hemingway after three pints of Owd Rodger but you probably looked like Beckett.

Baddum tish.

I know which beer festival you mean! The trouble is most “old ales” are very seasonal these days and it’s not too easy to get any for a beer festival held in late May and early June.

That explains why there weren’t very many in the programme – not why there weren’t any at all on the bar, forcing me to resort to weird foreign brews… Perhaps I went on the wrong day.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that what might be termed the first “modern” and certainly the first “US style” IPA made in the UK was Pictish Blue Moon which made its debut in 2001.

That’s very helpfully specific! Alistair Hook’s Mash supposedly had an IPA in the late nineties — did you ever try that? Would it qualify?

Problem with IPA is that its a bit strong, isn’t it. Hold your nose and you might as well be drinking spesh.

I don’t recall one being made at Manchester Mash (but they did open one in London so perhaps is was made there – but then again I’m not sure they were in concurrent operation). So no, I didn’t try it but if the beers at Manchester Mash were anything to go by I’m going to stick my neck out again and say, no it probably wouldn’t.

I remember going to an “IPA” festival at the White Horse, Parsons Green in about 1995, but can’t remember much of what I drank. There was something from Roosters, I think, and Burton Bridge, and a recreation of historical Bass IPA from the museum brewery, which I found shockingly, almost undrinkably bitter.

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