Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Sanctity of "India"

A few days ago Tom Cizaukas of Yours for Good Fermentables, found out that Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver had some thoughts on India Pale Lager; or more precisely that the use of “India” as a euphemism for all heavily hopped beer irked him. Oliver argued for a more creative approach when naming a new style, because as he notes "…if the word 'India' means 'hoppy', and IPA can be white, or black, or a lager, or sour....what does 'IPA' mean?

Garrett’s argument seems a bit more like the realization that his own influence on all things beery has begun to wane, and he’s a bit miffed someone didn’t ask him his opinion before they started naming their beer. But, to the larger issue, if I were a brewer, why fight an uphill battle when it comes to selling beer by trying to create a new “style”? Every other gimmick in the book is employed when it comes to moving beer, so why not use the path of least resistance when it comes to naming a really hoppy lager?

More to the point, “India” has been synonymous with hoppy for far longer than IPA has been associated with beer exportation to India. Furthermore, historically, “India” has been associated with other beer styles besides pale ale, specifically Export India Porter—an IPA-level hopped (upwards of 20 pounds per barrel) porter that kicked around from the early 19th century into the 20th century, and like IPA, used the label “India” well after it had stopped being shipped east. “Style creep” is not a new phenomenon. Be it a stylistic anomaly, oxymoron, or simply downright uncreative—like it or not—“India” now means hoppy. Language and the meaning behind words change, and so goes beer.

That being said, I wondered how some of my other beery compadres—those who use nomenclature daily when writing about beer—felt about Oliver’s statement, and the prolific use of “India”. So I posed this question to them: 
Do you believe that “India” (when related to beer) has come to mean bitter and hoppy, and therefore is it fair to say “India” as a descriptor, can be applied to a variety of beers if the intention is to imply that the beer is hoppy and bitter? Or, should the use of “India” be held fast only to India Pale Ale?
Here’s what came back:

Jordan St. John
The whole thing is a nonsensical appropriation of a term from the 19th century. Even in England IPA doesn't mean "Big Hoppy Beer."
We have all of us had that 3.5% IPA that is the direct legacy of that tradition.
The real difficulty is that we're in a period of rapid growth and development for an ingredient. If you look at the proliferation of styles that happens in Germany and England in the mid 19th century as a result of having the ability to suddenly create malt at different kiln treatments reliably; the lightening of beer throughout that century, it's very similar to what's happening now. Try, I dare you, to separate a Helles and a Dortmunder on the basis of taste alone. Styles were categorized geographically rather than on a continuum.
Similarly, we now have a situation where we've developed God only knows how many varieties of hops in the last forty years and more or less the same thing is happening. The difference is that the signifier that has been glommed on to is IPA because that was the hoppiest beer. It is convenient as a story. I wonder whether Garrett would care about the process of development if that signifier was left alone.
Style creep certainly happens, but that's how beer has always developed. Vienna Lager becomes Marzen. Pilsner becomes Helles. The difference is that in the 19th century the development was based on things getting lighter and more drinkable because there was paler malt. Now we got a wider variety of hop characters so of course hops that might benefit an existing style sneak into that style. Mr. Oliver himself has put Sorachi Ace in a Saison. That's not a traditional thing. The addition of new ingredients to additional styles is style creep certainly, but it's what happens when there are new ingredients and talented people.

Max Bahnson a.ka. Pivní Filosof
I wrote something on topic two and a half years ago:
I don't disagree with Oliver, but getting too wound up about that is a waste of time. It's like complaining that it's cold winter, it might make you feel better about yourself, but you'll still have to put your coat on. And let's be honest, whether we like it or not, when we see something labelled as This-or-that IPA, IPThis-or-that or India This-or-that we do get a fairly good idea of what we can expect, so I'd say that the nomenclature sort of works, if you are willing that IP(A) or India as a descriptor like Stout once was.

Ray Bailey of Boak & Bailey
Jess and I just had a chat about this.
We're pretty relaxed about the evolution of language, on the whole. Things change, and it's fun to watch while they do.
India, to us, means relatively strong, and hoppy, so we'd expect, say, India sour stout to be strong, hoppy, dark and sour.
GO [Garrett Oliver] has a point, though - why *not* invent new style names?  Or do without them altogether?
Answer: because people would be snarky...?

Stan Hieronymous
If we are to consider the population as a whole I'd say there are at least 4 groups
• Those bothered by the imprecise use of language. How can an India PALE Ale be black? And therefore all other variations, such as IPL, are silly.
• Those who think the styles that MJ [Michael Jackson] basically made up once upon a time are all we need.
• Those who don't understand, or probably care, what any of this style talk is about.
• Those, and these are the people driving sales right now, who use "hoppy" and IPA as synonyms. IPL tells them something.
I've heard him [Oliver] speak at length about nomenclature. He needs to read "Naming Nature" to realize how imprecise the scientific world can be.

Chad Polenz
Garrett Oliver is absolutely right. Basically India or IPA is just a synonym for hoppy. Black IPA, Session IPA, IPL, et al. It's just a cultural phenomenom. Not sure how it happened, exactly. And it IS ridiculous that we're still using the word "India". I think we need to re-brand the American-style IPA as simply "American Ale" or something like that.
I think it's too late now, though. The IPA-ization of everything is here to stay. People in the beer community will always know what IPA and India really mean. If you don't know what those terms mean, you're probably not a beer drinker (of anything other than BMC) and therefore you probably won't like an IPA anyway.

Alan McLeod
If I see "India" on anything but IPA I assume it means the beer is a mess. It does not actually mean big and hoppy so much as "lazy brewer." Same goes for barrel aged. IPLs are a perfect example of discordant tail-chasing bad beer design. Caused by the 3000 brewery universe as folk seem to need to both follow trends and stand out.

Jeff Alworth
Funny you should ask. I blogged about (and later argued with Alan about) it a couple months ago:
Mostly what I think about the question is addressed there, but here are three bonus points,
• Styles and names are never fixed. Anyone who has spent five minutes in Pattinson's archives gets this. One decade, Beer X means this, and then the next it changes. "Styles" are at best loose agreements between brewers and drinkers. In Germany, the distinctions are very fine (southern German pilsner versus helles), whereas in Belgium they are broad to the point of meaninglessness.

• The United States, not surprisingly, has adopted far looser commitment to style dictates. (Think of the stuff we call "Chinese" food.) Some things are very specific (an American helles is usually pretty close to a German one) and some are totally impressionistic (pale ale). IPA is no more or less than an expression of the American approach to appropriation and distortion that is exemplified throughout the food and beverage world.
• It doesn't matter what we think of this issue now: it will change. In 20 years, this whole IP-something will have become something else, but good luck guessing what. 

Evan Rail
It’s not just that styles change, but that language changes. Look at the word momentarily, which first appeared in English around 1650 or so. For centuries, momentarily was almost exclusively used to mean “for a moment,” or “briefly.” But today the word is mostly used to mean “in a moment,” or “very soon,” a sense it only acquired about a hundred years ago.

Think about that the next time the pilot says that your plane will be taking off “momentarily.”

Railing about India or IPL being an incorrect term is just as useful as complaining that the word momentarily should never be used to mean “in a moment,” and should only be used to mean “briefly.”

Language changes. Words acquire new meanings, and lose old ones. Deal with it.

Martyn Cornell
Yes, “India” is now shorthand for “very hoppy”, and frankly I have no problem with that. People need guidance as to what to expect from what they’re buying. Complaining that “India” now means “hoppy” is like complaining that “stout” now means “dark” when it originally just mean “strong”, or “mild” now implies something dark and weak when it originally meant something pale and strong—or, even, that “IPA” originally meant a beer that had to be stored for months, while today it means a beer that has to be drunk young before the hop flavours disappear. Nor do I believe that “IPA” itself is now debased through people saying “black IPA”, “white IPA” or whatever —even “IPL”. I don’t believe anybody is really confused by seeing a beer called “IPA” and not knowing what they’re likely to get, and if they see it appended with other adjectives, such as “Belgian”, to make “Belgian IPA”, I reckon if they have enough experience they can work out that they’re going to get something that’s going to be like a very well-hopped Saison. Similarly if someone sells me an “IPL” I know what to expect. I believe Garrett Oliver is completely wrong in getting upset at this, and I look forward to trying my first IPL.

That wraps it up on this end. many thanks to all of the writers who contributed. The only question left is, what do you think? Feel free to leave your comments below.


  1. When anyone says something along the lines of “language evolves, suck it up” I am reminded of people who argue that “cellar” now means “the closet where you keep your beer”.

    1. Cellar?! I hardly know her!

      Sorry, that was bad—but I had to do it.

  2. If you don't think language evolves, I would recommend you write your comments here in Middle English.

    What is "cellar" supposed to mean? Something below the house / underground? Because originally, that word actually meant "a storeroom."

    In other words, the original meaning of "cellar" (Latin "cellarium" / "cella") is much closer to "a closet" than it is to "an underground chamber."

  3. My favourite "word creep word" is "soon", which originally meant "right away" ...

  4. None of you got it right, not one, IMO. "IPA" doesn't just mean hoppy, it means well-hopped with American varieties available since 1972, initially the C-hops and now others such as Amarillo. All share a citric, piney character. European and especially English hops never had this. Also, English bitters and pale ales had become quite a bit less bitter by the 70's and after, but even if they retained an original character, the European didn't recognize them as "bitter" because it was too familiar. (Think of Jever, Urquell, many German pils beers on the Continent). When the big white pith of grapefruit and pine came in via Stone, Lagunitas, Honkers, people in Europe said "oh this is IPA". In the States, it was even easier to conclude this because except for Ballantine IPA - which never tasted grapefruity in its classic era - there was no baseline anyway, attenuated or not.

    So, both India and IPA now mean the post-1972 American hop taste. This being the case, there is no reason not to apply it to lager, white ale, etc.

    Gary Gillman