Thursday, November 8, 2012
Book Review: IPA - by Mitch Steele
by Mitch Steele
Brewer's Publications, 2012
The biggest revelation to be gleaned from IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, by Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele, isn't that the commonly-repeated story of the style's origin is full of misconceptions. That story has always been overly-simplistic, and it's been debunked before. Yes, IPAs were brewed to last a long time, and yes, they were shipped on a long voyage to India, but the former was not a direct result of the latter. They were just both true, as hoppy pale ales existed before being shipped anywhere, and other, non-IPA styles of beer made (and survived) the India voyage as well. For me, the biggest surprise that Steele illuminates is how similar historic English IPAs were to contemporary American examples in their recipe formulation, and yet how different they were in aging and end-result.
But before I dive into that more, this is a book review, and I owe potential readers of Mitch Steele's book a warning. Don't look to IPA as a brewing manual or a complete how-to book, as most reviewers on Amazon seem to be doing. The title promises "brewing techniques," and these are certainly covered — fairly well and reasonably extensively, as far as I'm concerned — but they're not the focus of the book. If all you want are some knowledge bombs to help you brew kick-ass IPAs, there's not much here that you couldn't easily read online. So for anyone who's already researched homebrewing extensively, I doubt any of these tips will be new. IPA is more a thorough overview of the style; an examination and chronicle that will appeal to both brewers and non-brewers.
IPA spends most of its time on the history and evolution of the India Pale Ale, later hitting tips and techniques more from the perspective of explaining "this is what an IPA is and what makes a good one" than a manual walking you through every step of the process. IPA should help you to make sure you're on the right track (and I'm especially glad Steele makes the case against using crystal malts in IPAs, which all-too-many East Coast brewers do) but if you're already brewing a pretty decent IPA, this won't be the book to transform you into a world-class master.
Personally, I felt the focus of the book was fine, and thorough — the eye-opening Steele provides on the early history of IPAs was fascinating to me. Understanding the evolution of the style, the way shifting cultures have transformed both the way IPA was brewed and the way it's enjoyed, gave me a number of ideas to ponder. I don't want to just rehash half the book here, but basically, historic English IPAs were brewed to be as pale as possible, using only the lightest of base malts, and using an insane amount of hops — up to 3 or 4.5 ounces per gallon. I've always thought of English IPAs as the malty, not-very-hoppy end of the spectrum, but this is obviously only the case as of the last century. Historic IPAs barely resembled contemporary English IPAs at all — but that doesn't mean they were enjoyed like modern American craft IPAs, either. The real bombshell is that India Pale Ale was aged up to a year before even being shipped to India... and that voyage lasted an additional six months. If you're a fan of hops, you know that this flies in the face of all conventional wisdom. IPAs fade in flavor faster than any other style of beer, and hops can easily oxidize, transforming an otherwise-great IPA into something outright unpleasant within a few months. So... what the hell? Did the English just have utterly bizarre taste back in the 1800's? Did they enjoy the character of oxidized, skunky hops in India?
Steele doesn't examine the paradox with as much editorial speculation as I would have liked — he does address it, but only through the lens of what we can know based on historic records, advertisements, and flavor descriptions. Fortunately, Steele does eventually make a conjecture: historic IPA was probably refermented by Brettanomyces while on the long voyage to India, thus making the end result even further from what we think of as an India Pale Ale — in my opinion, probably closer to Orval than Twisted Thistle. It makes so much sense to me that I spent chapters waiting for Steele to voice this theory — not only would it explain how the beer was magically carbonated and sparkling upon arriving in India, after brewers went to great lengths to ferment it to complete flatness in England and remove all yeast, but Brettanomyces is known to play around with hop compounds and transform them into something new and fun, which would explain how India Pale Ale avoided the oxidization and awfulness that would occur if you aged a contemporary IPA over the same time frame. This is utterly fascinating to me as someone obsessed with Brett, and worth a whole lot more exploration. But I'll save that for another time.
Finally, the recipe section in the back of the book should contain a few things you didn't know, too. It's got a nice, widespread group of IPAs (and black IPA) covered, and there should be at least one or two recipes to get you excited. Steele lists both grain bill and hops by percentages, which is nice in the case of the grain bill — most brewing software displays the percentage of each malt in the recipe — but a bit confusing in the case of hops. Being mathematically impaired, myself, I already got a headache trying to turn this into specific IBU and weight measurements, and brewing software is no help. Also frustrating is that a few recipes leave out crucial information, although probably for reasons that the author couldn't help or didn't know how to address. For example, IPA contains a recipe for Hill Farmstead's James Black IPA — which, awesome — but it's one of the few recipes that doesn't mention water treatment. I suspect their water profile is incredibly important to Hill Farmstead, and probably for that very reason, Shaun Hill didn't want to give the info out. Oh well. More confusingly, Steele doesn't mention aging with his historic IPA recipes, even though the entire first half of the book makes it clear that this was a crucial process for the beer.
But all these lapses are all fairly minor, and IPA should serve a solid education and a broad resource to any brewer. But more importantly — especially to anyone who drinks IPAs, but doesn't brew — it is a compelling read. Steele is not an author by trade, but it never shows. IPA is well organized and well articulated, and even in the slowest portions — when dealing with fairly dry subjects like historic business records and market transformations — it never slogs. It may not become your Bible for brewing the perfect American IPA, but it will hopefully awaken you to the fact that the style is even more varied than the many versions we have today, and inspire you to experiment accordingly. I know I will be.