August 3, 2008

‘Export’ is a Proper Job

T he term "export" is familiar to many beer consumers, with many brewers choosing to name their premium brands simply Export or referring to them as Export Strength.

Certainly beer has been traded across national borders since Roman times, and for some reason beer brewed in some faraway exotic location is often considered more premium than that brewed by the local brewery just down the road. Of course, as the "local brewery just down the road" we would argue robustly against this.

Nevertheless, this perception is as prevalent today as it was 250 years ago when fine English ales were considered the height of decadence at the courts of the Tsars in St Petersburg and across the Baltic states. One has only to glance along the bar counter or the supermarket shelves to see the range of imported brands and faux foreign lagers with names proclaiming Export as a badge of premium quality and alluding to locations in Europe, the Americas or the Antipodes. It's ironic many have travelled little further that Northampton or Manchester.

The export of English beer to Russia and the Baltic became a significant trade in the late 18th century, but when Napoleon rudely interrupted this British brewers had to look elsewhere. The East India Company had a significant sea trade with the British territories on the sub-continent. Ships arrived in British ports laden with silks, spices and treasures from India but returned with less valuable cargo, provisions for the Army and East India Company men. These ships required ballast in their holds, and London brewer George Hodgson was able to negotiate favourable terms to have his beer shipped out to the colonies.

With no Suez Canal it was an arduous voyage round Africa and Hodgson had to brew a special kind of robust beer to survive this journey. The solution was a beer higher in strength, and more heavily imparted with the preservative value of hops than the typical dark ales and porters of the time.

The trade flourished as other brewers, such as Samuel Allsop of Burton on Trent, got in on the act. Legend has it that a ship wrecked in Liverpool bay, laden with hogsheads of Allsop's East India Ale, had its cargo recovered and auctioned. This was the first time domestic British consumers had tasted the beer so far reserved for the colonies - and they wanted more! India Pale Ale, or simply IPA, was a hit with the new breed of Victorian middle classes and went on to become the dominant beer style of the mid-19th century.

Today IPA remains one of the most poorly understood beer styles. Many are simply session bitters of moderate gravity, perhaps characterised by a light fruitiness and a hoppy aroma. While admirable in their own right, they are a far cry from their Victorian forefathers (although I have heard a theory that genuine IPAs may have been diluted on reaching their destination to bring them down in strength).

Green King IPA is the biggest volume cask ale brand in the UK today, a fine session beer and a benchmark for the modern low gravity IPA brewed by many breweries. Available on draught and in bottle (Sainsbury's, pounds1.59 per 660ml, 3.6% abv), it is copper in colour, with a light, fruity aroma, and a distinctive whiff of hops, more apparent in the cask than the bottled version.

At St Austell we produce our own version of this style. Available only in cask, St Austell IPA (3.4%) also enjoys a light copper colour, although the hop character, while still fruity, is a little more assertive than Green King's.

By the late-20th century, British IPAs had become emaciated versions of their former selves. Across the Atlantic, however, the North American craft-brewing scene was feeding on a market tired of American light lagers, and experimented with overhauling classic European beer styles. Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico, California, produced a pale ale which was much closer to the true IPA style than anything then available in the UK (Sainsbury's, pounds1.39 per 330ml, 5.7% abv). The ubiquitous American Cascade hop (considered by many to be the Chardonnay of the brewing world) gives a big, fruity citrus flavour laid over an amber coloured sweet malty ale with a balancing bitterness.

Also on America's west coast, my good friend Karl Ockert, brewmaster at the Bridgeport Brewing Company in Portland, Oregon, brews one of my world favourite beers. Bridgeport IPA is golden in colour, hopped with just about every hop variety known to man, and according to Karl, "glows" in the glass. To you and me, this means it's cloudy, but intentionally so. Karl explains that in a market where everything is pre-processed and packaged, a natural haze in beer is taken by the US consumer to indicate it is natural and wholesome. This may be true for scrumpy ciders here but I'm not sure the British consumer is ready yet for a cloudy pint of cask ale.

On returning to the UK after a week's sabbatical at Bridgeport, I resolved to produce a Proper Job IPA. Studying Karl's recipe, I set about simplifying it, eliminating the complicated list of malt and hop varieties. Brewing great beer need not be complicated, but does rely on great ingredients. Cornish malt, Maris Otter of course, is used on its own to give a light, pale malt base, rounded out with Willamette hops, a mainstay of our Tribute ale, which give a balanced hop base, with a little blackcurrant note.

Carefully calculated quantities of Chinook and Cascade hops punch through to deliver the citrus high notes in a balanced way without swamping the flavour of the beer. The trial brew was on our micro- brewery for our Celtic Beer festival in 2005. The beer, as yet unnamed, was to be a Proper Job IPA, so this is what I wrote on the brew sheet. The name stuck and as well as being available in cask, Proper Job is also available bottled (Asda pounds1.70.)

I am not the only British brewer to be inspired by our American cousins to bring this classic British beer style back home. Marston's Brewery, based in Burton on Trent, the very town that flooded the Empire with IPA 150 years ago, has recreated the style in the appropriately named Old Empire IPA (Sainsbury's, pounds1.59 per 500ml, 5.7% abv). However, even Marston's could not resist adding a sprinkling of American Cascade hops and missed a trick when the brewery could have re-established a true Burton-brewed IPA as the benchmark for the style.

This task has been left to Meantime Brewery of Greenwich, who brew probably the closest modern interpretation of the original IPAs, and certainly Meantime IPA is no lightweight at 7.5% (Sainsbury's, pounds3.98 per 750ml). Well hopped - but with more restrained traditional English hop varieties rather than the louder, brasher Americans - the beer is bottled with a natural yeasty sediment, and must be decanted with a ritual that adds to the theatre and anticipation.

In the summer IPAs make a refreshing drink, so next time you enjoy one pause to reflect on the history of these well travelled ales that launched the idea of premium Export beers.

Roger Ryman is brewing director at St Austell Brewery. Visit

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