Saturday, February 28, 2009

Origins: India Pale Ale

Every beer has a story to tell. Every style has an origin, whether it is invented one night by a creative commercial brewer or developed over centuries by a brewing culture. Some origins are simple and direct, and others are complex amalgams of time, society, environment, worldwide economies and even international politics.

Take the India pale ale, or IPA, for example. Americans have rabidly embraced this style and have quickly made it their own, especially with the rise of very distinct American hop varietals. But the story of where it originated is sometimes blurry, and contains historical facts mixed with a fair amount of carried-forward misinformation.

The “traditional” history of the IPA relates that it was an ale brewed by the English to a greater strength and more strongly hopped so that it would survive the journey by sea to occupied India in the nineteenth century without spoiling. At that time, transit by ship took months and the additional hops acted as a natural preservative, keeping the beer fresh until delivery.

However, this origin tale is simply not true. Granted, it does contain some truths, enough to keep this version alive and propagating. Hops do act as a mild preservative, and the British did ship beer to occupied India on a trip that took months at sea. But other beers—namely, porters—often made the same trip without harm or spoilage, so it is unlikely that English brewers would use hop additions to solve a problem they simply did not face.

To uncover the IPA’s true origin, examine the brewers who first produced this style of beer. The IPA is tied to the origin of the pale ale, connected as that is to the particular water chemistry of Burton-on-Trent. A very high natural concentration of sulfates in the water produces a beer of not only exceptional clarity but also one of enhanced bitterness. The sulfates in the water also allows the beer to hold a greater hop load than typical brown ales without adversely affecting the flavor.

The first so-called IPA was the “October beer” brewed by George Hodgson at the Bow Brewery in the late eighteenth century. It was only of marginally higher gravity and only slightly more hoppy than the popular bitters at the time, but Hodgson had the fortune of good business relations with the East India Company, the long-serving trading body with India and China.

Due to Hodgson’s favorable location, business terms and lines of credit, the East India Company became a major customer for his beers—especially the October beer, which handled the journey to India very well. The months-long journey by sea aged Hodgson’s beers an equivalent of two years in a cellar, so they arrived at their destinations very well-attenuated and in prime condition for consumption.

At about this same time, many English brewers were suffering as they lost their Northern European and Russian markets due to new and increasing international tariffs on beer. To replace these lost markets, many took advantage of Hodgson’s popular new style and began producing IPA versions of their own for export. Demand for this export product expanded, and by 1840 the India pale ale was a popular style among British consumers.

These early IPAs would hardly be noticed by modern craft beer consumers, as their “hoppy” nature was only in contrast to the popular porters and brown ales of that day. However, brewers and horticulturists continued to experiment with the hop plant and have expanded the style almost continuously since that time.

Today’s varieties can be highly localized and regional, as American hops have been developed with distinct flavors that separate them from Old World species. Brewers and consumers continue to embrace an almost infinite spectrum of IPA substyles and specialties, as it remains one of the most popular American beers.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Texas Brewers Parity Amendment

It is illegal for breweries in Texas to sell you beer.

Let me state that once again: It is prohibited by current Texas law for a brewer (large or small) to sell beer directly to the public. If you take a tour of one of our state’s microbreweries, you can sample their beers for free and buy as many branded tee-shirts or pint glasses as you like, but you cannot purchase a single bottle. The one product they make, they are not allowed to sell.

In a relic left over from Prohibition known as the three-tier model, breweries are only allowed to sell to distributors, and distributors are only allowed to sell to retailers (bars, stores, restaurants, clubs). The original purpose of the three-tier system was a sort of monopoly-buster, a system of checks and balances to keep any portion of the brewing industry from having too much power.

Unfortunately, the three-tier model does not work. Over time, the parties involved have shifted, with major commercial brewers spawning their own distribution networks (legally separate on paper) that today hold almost total sway over the retail market. Large breweries have constructed the distributors to be largely dependent upon them and them alone, radically skewing the balance originally intended.

Some U.S. states have subsequently modified or eliminated laws surrounding this post-Prohibition thinking. But unlike many other states with blooming brewing industries, the brewer in Texas is still restricted from selling directly to the consuming public. The only legal means of selling beer in Texas is at the mercy of a distributor, but a bill currently before the State House wants to change that.

The Texas Brewers Parity Amendment, or formally HB 1062, was introduced in February by Tarrant County Representative Lon Burnam. (A similar version was also introduced into the State Senate, SB 754, and another compromise bill, HB 2094, followed that one.) What it asks for is rather modest: Brewers “may sell ale… manufactured or bottled on the permitted premises to ultimate consumers… in unbroken packages for off-premises consumption in an amount that does not exceed 35,000 gallons annually.”

Similar legislation has been attempted in the past but has always been defeated. Two years ago, Saint Arnold’s Brock Wagner spearheaded a comparable bill that never saw the House floor. Strong opposition is generally raised by distributors and retailers, who fear direct sales will only cut into their bottom line as people go straight to the source for the sale.

But these fears are unfounded and paranoid. Consumers are unlikely to forgo more convenient retail outlets to patronize a brewery only open a few hours each week. Our nine Texas microbreweries are located so far apart that business “stolen” from distributors will hardly be measurable. No one is driving from Dallas to Houston just to buy a beer they can get at the local supermarket.

And counter to any arguments against this compromise is the real-life example of wine. Winemakers won the same rights several years ago for wine sales on-site at vineyards (Texas alcohol laws are annoyingly specific to the type of alcohol they cover) with no impact on anyone’s sales. In fact, many winemakers claim an increase in sales because of the change.

Visitors on a brewery tour usually want something to take home with them. Being able to purchase a six pack will only generate more business for distributors and retailers, as the beer tourist is converted into a beer consumer. Customers will return to the nearest store for more beer instead of returning to the brewery each time.

What can we do? If you live in Texas, contact your state representative and your state senator and express your support for our local Texas microbrewers and for this legislation.