I thought that I didn’t like India Pale Ale until I came to India. I wasn’t pale at the time but I was certainly ale (and arty) because I had just spent three months in Sri Lanka and had acquired something of a tan. Maithreyi, my companion, took me to a place that sold ‘craft’ beers and I changed my mind about the merits of India Pale Ale and my mind has been changed ever since.
The notion of a ‘craft’ beer is one that intrigues and baffles me. I think of a craft as something involving working with wood, chiselling it, shaving it like an orthogonal chin with a plane, drilling it, fitting it together into a chair, table, ark for animals, or something beautiful but useless that looks like furniture but also might conceivably be a petrified tree stump.
Therefore, how can one ‘craft’ a beer? The foam on the surface of the brew once it has been poured into a glass can be removed with a flat tool, the blade of a knife or a metre long ruler or even a credit card. Yes, that is plausible and once or twice I have seen it done. But what other crafty actions remain to be taken in regard to the beer in order that it should be regarded as ‘crafted’? Drilling a beer is a futile exercise. We have all done that with our noses and understand the lack of permanent effect. Who among us has never surrendered to the temptation to dip our noses into the meniscus of our beers?
Let me adjust that hasty statement. Many or at least some of us have done that with our noses, at one time or another, probably long ago when we were the callowest of youths, students at some college or other and fairly new to the rite of drinking beer. The dipping of the nose might even have been accidental. Who can be a harsh judge in such circumstances?
So, it is settled that beer can’t be drilled, nor can it be sawn in half. We have all heard the wise saying that the optimist regards the glass as ‘half full’ and the pessimist regards it as ‘half empty’ and we instinctively know that the liquid in those philosophical glasses is beer. What kind of beer is less clear. If it is totally unclear then it must be a dark beer, but I suspect it is only unclear with a foggy opaqueness, which tends to lead me to conclude it is India Pale Ale. It becomes easier now to picture the scene in the drinking den, whether that den is posh and plush or crude and rude. We see the optimist and the pessimist, good friends but mismatched, holding up their depleted glasses.
Both are drinking India Pale Ale and have consumed exactly fifty percent of the contents of what once were brimming vessels. The optimist looks down at his glass with a large smile, “Ah, it is still half full. What excellent luck!” while the pessimist looks at his own glass with a deep frown, “It’s half empty already, what a blasted nuisance the world is!” But something strange has happened, and we have only just noticed it. We suppose that a ‘half empty’ glass contains beer in the bottom half and air in the top half.
Because this is a vision we are having, and visions aren’t subject to all the laws of physics, especially not gravity, we are amazed to peer closer and see the beer in the pessimist’s glass is confounding our (unreasonable) expectations. It contains the air at the bottom and the beer at the top. The optimist is impressed and cries, “What marvellous luck! You don’t need to tilt your glass at a steeper angle anymore in order to receive the India Pale Ale into your mouth. You can slurp it up from the summit of the glass.”
I am sure the pessimist will object to this positive interpretation of a beery situation and find some convoluted reason why this defiance of gravity is a bad outcome. But I am weary of these two fellows now. Let us leave them in peace to get drunk together, the optimist thinking that being drunk is good, his friend concluding that it’s not as good as he was led to believe it is, and head to a quite different location for a drink of our own.
The place Maithreyi took me to that sells ‘craft’ beers, including the India Pale Ale that is the subject of this small essay, was somewhere in Bangalore not far from Blossom Book House. We had bought books in that house, as we often do, a decent haul, and went to celebrate with beer and nibbles, and later, when we were just a little tipsy, we hurried back to Blossom Book House and bought more books. But this isn’t an article about books. It’s an article, or what passes in my mind for an article, about beer, specifically about the type of beer that is known as India Pale Ale. Where was I?
Oh yes, I was in that place that sold craft beers, and I have decided at this point to stop writing the word ‘craft’ in inverted commas. There were too many craft beers on offer for an easy selection to be made, so we ordered a sampler of many kinds, and they came on a big tray. They were in small glasses, dark beers and golden, reddish beers and greenish, fizzy beers and still beers, and perched on the end of the rectangular tray, two glasses of the mythic India Pale Ale. My reluctance to try these hangers-on is comprehensible when one considers how dreadful a non-craft India Pale Ale can be.
Back in Britain, decades ago, when first I allowed beer to pass the gates of my lips without turning it back, IPA was fairly popular among those unfortunate drinkers who lacked taste buds. Why they lacked taste buds was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction. Presumably they had lost them overboard while sailing from the Far East on packet steamers. It was a long time before I knew that IPA was an acronym for India Pale Ale. I assumed it was a word in its own right and that its own right was wrong. I would say that most beers sold in pubs in Britain in the 1970s were abominable, but this suggests that the Abominable Snowman would like them, and I doubt that he would.
I have done a little research (a very little, almost too little to be regarded as anything other than mildly faffing around) and I learn that India Pale Ales were once a noble style of beer, invented in the 18th Century for export by the sneaky imperialists of the East India Company. It was flavoured with hops, lots and lots of hops, more hops than a kangaroo would do, if it had a chance, and the adding of these extra hops had some effect that meant the ale would mature or whatever the word is during the difficult sea voyage.
I don’t really understand the chemistry of it, and I don’t really want to, I am merely repeating what I found out just now. IPA was an EIC product, proving to my own satisfaction that acronyms aren’t relatively modern inventions but have been around for a very long time. The decline in the quality of IPA, and all beers for that matter, during the 20th Century, is perhaps a mysterious one or maybe it has something to do with the big breweries rapaciously wanting to increase their profits by using less lovely ingredients and processes. I don’t especially like the taste of hops at the best of times. At the worst of times hops make me wince and frown like some kind of wincing frowner, a very lazy comparison, true, but my powers of simile and metaphor are temporarily on hold, for I haven’t recovered from a rather severe bout of acutely remembering the IPA and other beers of my early days on this gracious planet of ours.
A strongly hopped beer tastes, to me, like mouldy bread. The IPA of those long-gone days tasted like a sack of mouldy loaves swung around the head of a gorilla and used to bash one on the bonce. My powers of simile and metaphor, such as they are, seem to have returned. And yet when I took a cautious gulp of the IPA in the place that Maithreyi had guided me to, my preconceptions and established prejudices melted with the delightfulness of the taste that confronted me. What a magnificent India Pale Ale! I tried the other IPA on offer. Golly, this was even more wondrous! Let’s order more!
I say, my dear, we have bought books in our favourite bookshop. Isn’t it an astonishingly beneficial way to pass the time, obtaining books? And it’s not as if we buy them but never read them. We read them! Wouldn’t it be a jolly romp to return to the bookshop, once we have consumed more beers here, and engage in the act of purchasing more books? Indeed!
A final observation from an unobservant chap (myself). Any British fellow who guzzles IPA with gusto and ends up with a sodden moustache and beard as a consequence can be regarded as a ‘Pale Ale Face’ which is what ‘Indians’ in old Westerns almost called cowboys on occasion. Anyway, this essay appears to be over now, and the page on which this final paragraph has been written is an empty glass at last, the brew of its words fully consumed by your eyes, leaving only the dregs of a footnote at the bottom.
 Hale and hearty, a description used frequently in my youth, but which seems to have fallen out of favour. Falling out of favour is easily done if the speeding favour brakes to a sudden halt and the thing that was in favour isn’t strapped in properly. When it falls out of favour it often lands with a painful bump and favour drives off with a monstrous laugh. Even flavours can fall out of favour or back into it.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles