June 28, 2015

Book Review: IPA by Mitch Steele

I know I am late to the party reviewing this book. It was published in 2012 and there are a lot of reviews out there. I picked this up about six months ago and meant to write the review earlier but just didn't get around to it before. Actually I thought about passing on writing a review of IPA because there are so many reviews online but in my opinion IPA has been unfairly criticized so this review is really more of a defense of the book than piling on to what you have likely already read about IPA.

IPA, or fully titled Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, by Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing is unsurprisingly a book about IPA. When Brewers Publications put out its style books in the 1990s there was no IPA book. IPA was instead lumped in with pale ales in Pale Ale. In the 2000s Brewers Publications released additional style books including Brew Like a Monk, Wild Brews, Farmhouse Ales and Brewing with Wheat that were expanded and designed with a different feel. IPA is not officially part of the 1990s style series but reads like a supersized version of those books. If you have read any of the 1990s style books then you know they were roughly evenly split between history and brewing practices. IPA follows suit in the same pattern although it is at least twice the length of those older style books.

The first two-thirds of the book traces the history of IPA from its English roots into modern craft variants. Steele openly draws heavily from the work of Ron Pattinson (of the blog Shut Up about Barclay Perkins) and other members of the Durden Park Beer Circle. Significant space is allocated to displacing the oft-repeated myth about IPA and its design to survive the boat ride to India. However, within the 185 pages of IPA history there is plenty of knowledge to gleam about brewing practices of the past in England, Scotland and here in the United States. This section ends at its natural destination in the present discussing modern IPA variants.

The remaining 100+ pages discusses IPA brewing techniques and a lengthy section of model IPA recipes provided by stalwarts of IPA on both sides of the Atlantic. There are no shocking techniques discussed for brewing IPAs but it is more technical than most of the 1990s style books which discussed brewing at a beginner's level. The recipes represent a nice span of English and American IPAs both new and old. Personally I would have liked to have seen more technical details from the breweries about brewing IPAs but these books are written for broad appeal and Steele strikes an acceptable median here. Overall IPA is far superior in depth and usefulness in comparison to those 1990s style books and holds its own with the quality of the other post-90s style books released by Brewers Publications.

Criticism of IPA typically revolves around three points:

1. There is too much space given to the history of IPA;
2. The recipes do not include specific volumes;
3. The book lacks discussion about the newest, most hyped IPAs and the hops giving rise to those beers.

Each of these points are completely accurate but the reason why they are treated as criticism are not meaningful. Certainly it would be great to see this book, like every other Brewers Publication book, turned into a 1000 page tome with explicit detail so that no other book would have to be published on the subject for another twenty years. Of course, that book would be a challenge to publish and certainly would not be a $25 book. Accepting that it is a 300 page $25 book, let's deconstruct these criticisms.

The length spent on history is certainly voluminous but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The incorrect story about IPA's beginnings continues to be treated as unqualified truth and the only way that myth will die is with a resource such as this book presenting a more authoritative and substantiated explanation. No book could rightfully be treated as the definitive guide to IPA without a strong refutation of that myth. Moreover, there is actually a lot of worthwhile brewing knowledge packed into the history, especially for those of us interested in brewing historical styles or adopting historical brewing practices into our own brewing. I am sure for people who were just looking at how to brew an imperial IPA with simcoe, citra, amarillo, centennial and mosaic, this section was a complete waste.

It is true that the recipes included in the book do not have specific grain or hop volumes and that requires a little work to fashion a clone recipe but there is a good reason for this. These recipes were designed on commercial systems that develop beer differently than our homebrewing systems. It would be impossible for Steele to sort out recipes accurately designed for all readers. IPA is a resource for those brewing seven gallons and seven barrels. Quite frankly, it is not that difficult to figure out how to adapt the information into complete recipes. Additionally, some of the breweries who offered recipes are less candid than others about recipes so the amount of information provided may be all Steele had available to publish.

And sure, IPA does not tell you how to go to your local shop and buy the ingredients to clone Heady Topper or whatever the IPA of the month happens to be. If the book had focused on the long list of IPAs loaded up with the same group of hops used in all the other hyped IPAs then it would be worthless in a couple years when everybody dumps their Citra in favor of whatever new hop becomes all the rage. There are enough recipes available here that any brewer can take the most hyped hops of the year and assemble a great recipe.

I've seen some of this criticism levied on the low volume of information about brewing IPAs as though the secret processes that make world class IPA were left out. I do not think that is accurate. IPA as a style receives so much focus and new IPAs focus so much on squeezing out every whiff of hop character that the small details really make the difference between a great IPA and the top of the market such that every component of the brewing process has to be at the top of the game. There is no secret sauce. Some of those details are specific to your brewhouse and you'll only figure out the optimal technique through luck or experimentation. One brewer's optimal sulfate level for IPA might not be right anywhere else or for any other IPA.

If you are looking for a book on IPAs to tell you how to make Pliny or Heady Topper every time then this is not the right book. That book has not been written. However, if you are interested in better understanding IPA as a style and thinking beyond Citra and Mosaic then this book is good value.

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