I love Indian Food, and the more authentic, the better. Cooking peppery-hot vegetarian dishes at home, I use recipes from Rajasthan and spices from Madras while listening to a CD of George Harrison playing the sitar. And the beer I choose is an India Pale Ale, shipped all the way from England.

ipaYes, England. Unlike Belgian waffles, Turkish coffee, and Irish stew, India Pale Ales owe their moniker not to their land of origin but rather the country to which they were historically shipped. Created by London’s Bow Brewery in 1790, this style was – and still is – generally characterized by a tawny orange color and high levels of both hopping and alcohol. The reason for this double-barreled approach had less to do with currying favor among the thirsty troops stationed in India than to ensuring that the product arrived there in quaffable condition.

Most of the standard ales of that time arrived at the subcontinent in pretty sari shape. Bow’s deployment, though, of more alcohol and hops proved to be just the right Taj – er, touch – in contributing to the beer’s stability and shelf life. Hoppily enough, this new type of brew grew so popular that other brewers soon followed Bow’s lead. Over time recipes change, though, and during the latter half of this century IPAs have gradually become as watered down as skim milk, with most sporting less snap than a day-old papadum.

Their American Cousins

Lately North American microbrewers have leavened some crispness back into the style. While many have looked to historical sources for guidance, brewmaster John Harris, of Oregon’s Full Sail Brewing Co., concedes, “We don’t really know what these tasted like in the 1800s.” Because hops were so dominant, Full Sail gives its India Pale Ale a solid Anglo angle through all-English spicing with Kent Goldings, Targets, and Challengers. “We try to balance that with alcohol and malt flavor,” Harris adds, “for a beer that’s both malty and bitter.” And dangerously drinkable.

Another ale that sails like silk down the throat is Pike Brewing’s LP.A. Huge hoppy florals are supported by a dry, estery palate that hints at oranges and apricots. Fal Allen, this Seattle company’s former brewing chief, agrees that malt provides an essential accent: “Not malty sweet, but you have to use a lot of grain to get that higher alcohol level.” Yet Larry Bell, president of Michigan’s Kalamazoo Brewing Co., observes that many brewers, in trying to balance their hops, end up “overly caramelly.” That’s not a problem with his own jab at the genre, Two Hearted Ale, which some timid tipplers may deem Sikh-eningly hoppy. Those who love the lather of hop oils will find the sultry perfume (like elder flower) of this bottle-conditioned gem heavenly.

Beers that Command Attention

These are, after all, “wake-me-up, shake-me-up, this-is-a-beer!” types of drinks, says Teri Fahrendorf, Steelhead Brewery’s brewmaster of operations, in Eugene, Ore. Primary to an India Pale Ale is “a young sassy hop aroma that smacks you in the face.” Or nose and mouth, as in Steelhead’s Bombay Bomber, a resiny hopsack of a brew marked most pleasingly by a generous deployment of grapefruity, piney Chinook hops.

In its IPA, the San Diego area’s Stone Brewery issues a similar sensory alert. “It’s not a beer for everybody, but then we choose not to pander to the public,” president Greg Koch says. Like many, Stone’s I.P.A. is dry-hopped, endowing it with the fresh fragrance of Humulus lupulus. Its malty mouthfeel provides some equilibrium, but this beautifully bitter brew, with a profound flavor of fruit lingering long on the tongue, is largely a showcase for hops.

So too is Hop Ottin’ India Pale Ale, the latest in the fine lineup at Anderson Valley Brewing, in Northern California. A touch of Munich malt lends some homogeneity to a spicy-fruity (mandarin oranges and tangerines), bombastically bitter palate. “It’s way out of style,” admits head brewer Brit Antrim. “Basically we shoved as much hops in as we could.” One might believe the same of Great Lakes Brewing’s Commodore Perry, an outstanding IPA from Cleveland that virtually explodes with esters of yeast and hops. “We try to introduce hop flavor by loading as much hops as we can in the boil and whirlpool,” says brewmaster Andy Tveekrem. The Commodore’s pronounced bitterness stems from a reliance on Galena hops, and its heightened florals are indebted to Canadian-grown Goldings.

If there were an office of India Pale Ales, one would expect veteran hop-master John Maier, of Newport, Ore.’s Rogue Ales Brewery, to be its honorary manager. Yet Maier disdains to offer an IPA, scoffing wryly, “Everybody’s doing those.” Rogue’s proffered pint is [I.sup.2]PA, with the first I implying “Imperial.” Floor-malted barley yields a complex caramel-toast taste, but it’s the uber presence of domestic Saaz and Cascades that captures one’s attention. Each barrel is also dry-hopped with a pound of Kent Goldings.

Finding the One You Like

Beer browsers sipping from one India Pale to another will find several that put less emphasis on the vine. For example, Minnesota’s Summit India Pale Ale is fruity, delicately dry, with overtones of caramel malt. Also worth inhaleing are the Brooklyn Brewery’s gypsum-rich East India Pale Ale, with muscular maltiness tempered by English hops; Shipyard’s (Maine) Fuggles India Pale Ale, with whiffs of honey checked by fresh-gristed malt and an appley hoppiness; the wonderfully fruity (plums and cherries) Victory Hop Devil (Pennsylvania), notable too for a luscious malty-bitter equipoise; and the spritzy Bridgeport (Oregon) Firkin I.P.A., a tasty top-fermenter showcasing caramel, fruit, and an assertively dry finish.

India Pale Ales, while “cutting edge, will never become mainstream,” Tveekrem argues. They’re overly aggressive flavor-wise, he figures. That’s probably true. For most people a Weizen or an “ice” folly is just fine. Like Indian food, IPAs pack too much flavor, are too astringent, too potent, too mouth puckering. Just the thing for those of us looking to bitter ourselves.

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