Beer styles are not fixed. They evolve and mutate over time in reponse to fiscal, economic and technological changes in the society around them.
You may have noticed that I'm quite interested in the history of British beer styles. That's why I spend so much time fiddling around with old documents. No-one else can be arsed to do it, so it's up to me to do the research.
A common complaint is that modern British IPA's aren't true to style. That brewers have just pinned the name onto an ordinary Bitter. IPA should be a strong hoppy beer, the argument goes.
Like other British styles, IPA has changed considerably over time. In the the 19th century it was 6% ABV or more. Which would make it a strong beer today. But hang on, let's have a look at some other styles in that period. Mild was between 5.5% and 8% ABV and Guinness 7.5% ABV. All British styles are far weaker than they were 150 years ago. IPA is no exception. But in the 19th century, not only was IPA not a strong beer it was actually one of the weakest beers. Its relative psoition in the hierarchy of beers strengths is little changed today.
Take a look in the table. It shows Whitbread Ales for the period 1881-1933. Only two beers were brewed throughout the whole period: X, the standard Mild, and PA, Bitter. IPA only appeared in 1901, when it was slightly weaker than X and considerably weaker than PA. By 1933, IPA was still a good bit lower in gravity than PA but had nosed in front of X. Between 1901 and 1933 the gravity of X dropped 46%, of PA 25% and of IPA 36%. In other words, the decline in IPA gravity was roughly average.
Let's look at the situation today. Mild averages around 1034, Best Bitter around 1042 and ordinary Bitter around 1037. If it were still brewed, you would expect Whitbread IPA to be about 1035. I would argue that a modern IPA's that are around 1037-38 are actually stronger than they should be.
So have brewers deliberately brewed beers that aren't right for the style? One thing's worth considering: beers like Greene King IPA wasn't invented yesterday. It's been around for an awfully long time.
It makes me smile when people accuse Greene King IPA of not being an authentic IPA. In my opinion it is. It's true to the style as it has been brewed in Britain for about 100 years. It's not an authentic 19th-century style IPA. But if you judge British beers by this criterion, then the only authentic beers brewed in Britain are Harvey's Imperial Stout, Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, Hardy Ale and Whitbread Gold Label.
Why insist that IPA be brewed like it was in 1850 but not other styles? It would be equally true to say that Guinness isn't an authentic Extra Stout, that Young's isn't an authentic Bitter and that Bateman's isn't an authentic Mild.
I could equally argue that American IPA's aren't authentic because they are too bitter, use the wrong sort of hops and aren't attenuated enough. That's if I were to decide that the 1850's English version of IPA is the "authentic" one. But of course that's a ridiculous basis for criticising beers.
Artyfacts from the Nyneties #5: Sainsbury’s Bière de Garde, 1991 - The image above comes from the Sainsbury’s supermarket in-house magazine for November 1991 and is a great reminder that interesting beer didn’t arrive in...
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