ARE BELGIAN IPA’S BETTER?
What is an IPA?
An IPA is a hoppy beer style ale, usually between 5% to 9% ABV and a bitterness between 40IBU to 60IBU . The first thing you notice about an IPA is the lovely hoppy aroma and then the hoppy flavour. It can be a bit hazy and cloudy, but some are clear. They can be amber, tan or medium brown in colour. They can be floral, citrus, pine, herbal etc.
There is no rule about which hops to use or how much, although there are a few IPA styles out there. A double IPA is usually higher in ABV and has been hopped with lots of hops making it more bitter, flavoursome and aromatic.
History of IPAs
Today, an IPA is an India Pale Ale which is a pale ale with extra hops. As all beer lovers know, a pale ale is an ale brewed from pale malt, and we all know where India is. The IPA was developed in England to meet demand for English ale in India over 200 years ago.
An East London brewer, George Hodgson, had a brewery located near the docks of the East India Company which controlled trade between Great Britain and India. In order to survive the long journey by ship to India he added extra hops. He also made sure that all of the residual sugars were fermented out resulting in a slightly higher alcohol content, but less than most modern IPAs.
Over the years, more English brewers started to export a similar style of beer to India. Brewers located around Burton with its superb water, like Allsopp Bass, Charringtons started to dominate the IPA production. Towards the end of the 19th century a lot of the brewers had dropped the India from IPA , and pale ale became a UK favourite.
By 1900, IPAs were brewed in America, Australia and New Zealand and today most beer producing countries have IPAs and the explosion of craft breweries has increased the availability of IPAs and the diversity of IPA styles.
How to Brew an IPA ?
First the ale has to be well made, lots of hops will not mask a inferior ale.
The key to an IPA is the hops. Regular beers are brewed by adding the hops during the boiling process where the alpha acids in the hops dissolve into the liquid. The alpha acids are responsible for imparting the bitterness into the beer and the antibacterial properties of the hops. The timing of when to add the hops and how long to boil them affects the final flavour, You can find 30, 60, 90 and even 120 minute IPAs, where the hops are gradually added over that period of time. But this is similar to most beer styles.
What makes and IPA different is the predominance of the beta acids. These add the aroma and flavour to the beer but disappear if boiled, so that hops have to added just before or after the end of the boiling. An alternative is to add the hops later during the fermentation period, a process called dry hopping.
One of the skills of IPA brewing is to ascertain when to take the hops out. If they are taken out too early, the IPA lacks its wonderful aroma and flavour. If the hops are left in for too long, it develops a bitter kick which some people enjoy and some brewers work hard to create.
The Belgian had no colonial ties to the Indian sub-continent so any Belgian IPA is a fairly new concept. But you have to take a step back and ask what makes the Belgian beers so good? It is like asking what makes Belgian chocolate so good. It is centuries of expertise. In which case then, how can a recent introduction to the Belgian beer repertoire be so good?
When you drink a Westvleteren 12, a Dupont Saison or a Rodenbach Vintage you know that what is in your glass is the best world and that next time you buy a bottle it will still be the same quality.
If a serious Belgian brewer produces an IPA it will have to live up to its reputation. However, some of the Belgian IPAs are based on blondes rather than pale ales. The difference is not that big, but it is noticeable.
For example, Duvel produces a triple hop beer, each year with a different hop. The third hop is dry hopped. But the base beer is its regular strong Belgian blonde, a magnificent beer and one of the greatest when it comes to consistency. It is hoppy and delicious, but it is not an IPA.
Four Belgian IPAs
In this article I will look at two commercial IPAs, Vedette and Leffe Cascade, and two microbrewery IPAs, de Dochter van de Koernaar and Den Trieste.
Vedette Extraordinary IPA
The first time I tasted the Vedette Extraordinary IPA I was with one of my sons in a café in Brussels and it was on draught. It is extraordinary, as I do not usually expect an explosion of flavour from a draught beer in a café. The bitterness is understated and there is a range of citrus notes.
Vedette uses four different American hops, and I am sure that includes citra and cascade. At 5.5% ABV, it is pleasant and extremely drinkable. I found the draught version better than the bottles.
Classical Music Pairing: Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, a lovely modern twist on a classic.
Leffe Royale Cascade IPA
Leffe Royale is a Belgian Blonde, a very good blonde, and it also comes in versions with different hops, Whitbread golding, ella, cascade IPA, mapuche and mount hood.
As they are all 7.5% ABV I am a bit suspicious why they only call the cascade an IPA. Presumably, because this is the only one of the five varietals to undergo dry hopping. Although Leffe Royale Cascade IPA is on the border between a blonde and a pale ale, it exemplars the creativity of Belgian brewing by pushing the blonde very clearly into IPA territory.
Named after the Cascade Mountain range in north-western USA, the cascade hop was introduced in 1971 and has become a staple of the more citrusy IPAs and it works very well when dry hopped.
Classical Music Pairing: Dvorak’s New World symphony, the modernity of American cascades overlaid on the old European Leffe.
De Dochter van de Korenaar Extase IPA
A few kilometers north of the Belgian border, there are a series of exclaves, little areas of Belgium which for feudal reasons do not belong to Holland. This makes De Dochter van de Korenaar - the daughter of the corn ear, which is slang for beer – a Belgian brewery.
Defenitely one of Belgian’s best breweries, De Dochter brews a few IPAs. Its Belle Fleur is a fresh, hoppy blonde based IPA and Crime Passionel is a more creamy and spicy IPA using wheat instead of barley. But its best IPA is the Extase with an IBU over. It is a double IPA with a blend of fourteen excellent hops, very intense and with a balanced character. The slight sweetness of the malt sugars and the alcohol complement the bitterness of the beer. This is a beer which will take you to lots of different places while you drink it and yet leaves you sitting in the same place. It is multifaceted yet balanced. A true masterpiece.
Classical Music Pairing: Definitely Vivaldi’s four seasons while your pallet enjoys storms, sunshine, rain, snow and autumn, all in one glass.
Den Trieste IPA
If you are in Belgium on the first Sunday of a month, then make your way to Trieststraat 241880 Kapelle op den Bos about 20km north east of Brussels. Marc Struyf only opens his bar once a month and he is a hop expert and wonderful brewer. During the warmer months, you can sit in the garden which has that lovely balance between domestication and wildness and enjoy some of the best beers in the world.
This IPA does not need to overstate any particular flavours or explode any sensations in your mouth. It is a prize winner at lots of festivals and competitions. Sit in the garden drink the IPA, flavour the pastoral setting and wish it could last forever. Do not forget to buy a few bottles before you leave.
Classical Music Pairing: What could be more perfect than Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony.