Beer history Beer styles

Old School IPA

Chris Clough’s Tweet, above, prompted us to put into words something that’s been buzzing around our heads for a while: Old School IPA is, and should be, a distinct sub-style.

What Chris was actually getting at, as elaborated upon in subsequent Tweets, is that what would have seemed a proper, unremarkable amount of bitterness in an IPA c.2010 has come to be regarded as high bitterness in this age of soft, sweet, fruit-juice-like beers, and therefore a bit retro.

But, as it happens, we’ve used the term frequently to distinguish a particular type of IPA, of which some other examples are…

  1. Weak, brown, mid-20th-century IPA, e.g. Greene King.
  2. Pale, citrusy 1990s American-inspired IPA, e.g. St Austell Proper Job.
  3. Hazy, sweet, oniony 21st century IPA, e.g. this lot.

These are all legitimate takes with verifiable lineage to the 19th century original, even if it’s hard to see any family resemblance between GK IPA and a Cloudwater DIPA.

India Pale Ale No. 1

But Old School IPA, as we’ve thought of it, is a kind of non-identical twin to the 1990s American style in particular, emerging from the same round of scholarly enthusiasm centred around Roger Protz, Mark Dorber and the White Horse on Parson’s Green. We’ve written about this a few times but here’s a brief account from Mr Protz himself:

Dorber decided to hold a pale ale festival at the pub in 1993 and asked Bass, owners of the White Horse, if they would brew a special IPA for the event. The brewer responded by calling up a retired brewer Tom Dawson who recalled brewing Bass Continental for the Belgian market, based on Burton beers from Victorian times. The 7.2% beer he brewed caused such interest when it was launched at the White Horse that Mark Dorber and me, with the support of the British Guild of Beer Writers, organised a major seminar in 1994 at the Whitbread Brewery in the Barbican. Brewers from both Britain and the United States attended with their interpretations of the style. Among those from the U.S. was Garrett Oliver who went on to become a celebrated brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery where he still produces the East India IPA he brought to the seminar.

What makes an IPA Old School in our view is and emphasis on hop bitterness as well as, and perhaps more than, aroma/flavour; a preference for English hop varieties; mellow orange character rather than pine or grapefruit; and a certain stoical pintability, despite relatively high ABVs by late 20th century cask ale standards.

Victorian IPA might be a good alternative description, and that’s certainly the iconography employed on many of those we’ve come across: Old Empire, Bengal Lancer, Bombay 106, and so on. We tend to enjoy beers like this and would like to see more of them, especially given that everything is IPA now anyway.

We’re not the first to give a personalised breakdown of IPA sub-styles — check out Jeff Alworth’s here, and Mark Dredge’s here.

8 replies on “Old School IPA”

So do I; it was to me at that time intensely, shockingly bitter: the bitterest beer I’d ever tasted and I remember struggling to finish the pint. I wonder what I’d think of it now.

Indeed, back in the late 1990s, there were a few ‘historical’ IPAs leading the way in that direction already, and using Victorian imagery: Freeminer Trafalgar, Burton Bridge Empire Pale Ale… and they were a proper revelation to me at the time ! :o)

BB Empire. *Swoon*.
I’ve always been on the dark side, myself, but I do like Victorian IPA.

This is complicated by the American definition of “old school,” which refers to a style I think had no analogue in Britain. In the US, 90s IPAs were certainly bitter, but they were also thick and sweet. Caramel malt was a hallmark of those beers, which were syrup dosed with enormous amounts of bitterness and little or no aroma and flavor hopping. They were often copper-colored and rarely anything less than amber.

The bitterness was necessary to balance the sweetness. One of the changes was when brewers realized they could dial the caramel malt back in order to reduce bitterness–which allowed room for more late-addition hops. The British version of the American IPA (Thornbridge, BrewDog) modeled a later type of our IPAs.

Maybe a bit of a nod to things like Newcastle Brown? Certainly I’d suggest that at that stage the flow of information was more east->west before we then discovered Cascade.

I don’t like “old-school” just because it’s relative and could refer to anything – are beers based on Citra now old-school just because it’s been superceded in the cool stakes by Mosaic and Galaxy?

Victorian IPA is getting closer – but even then there’s a problem, hopping rates in general declined massively between the 1840s and the end of the century. I’d suggest we adopt the USian terminology of “English IPA” – and hopefully in return they would adopt our “American Pale Ale” rather than contorting themselves with phrases like session IPA. That then suggests a more-or-less standard framework – the (optional) demonym refers to the country of origin of the main flavour/aroma hops, under say 5% it’s a Ruritanian Pale Ale, 5-7.5% it’s a Ruritanian IPA, >7.5% it’s a Ruritanian DIPA.

My favourite English IPA used to be the old on-trade bottled version by Shepherd Neame which disappeared around the turn of the century – the new off-trade version isn’t nearly as good.

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