IPAs (India pale ales) have been a source of perturbation for me ever since I started learning about beer. In my youth – which is to say, up until I was about 40 – I was quite happy to simply drink the stuff (beer) without making any inquiries. Sure, I was one of the first to embrace the microbrewing movement when it started in the late 80s, and for a while there I even brewed my own. But my tastes were dictated by brand more than by style. I liked McAusalan's beers better than Brasserie du Nord's, for example, because they were less sweet. I'd happily glug any exotic or craft brew, and appreciate it in my blissfully ignorant way. It either made me smile or it made me frown (and very few made me frown).
But in all those years of drinking Keith's, neither I nor anyone I knew ever though to ask "why is it called 'India pale ale'?" It was only much later in life, when I developed a taste for wine and more refined beers, that I even began to wonder how a pilsner differed from a lager or how an ale differed from a beer. And of course, what makes an IPA an IPA.
In case you're wondering, the short answer is this: back in the old days of British colonial India, beer was sent all the way from the British Isles to the subcontinent by ship, which could take up to five months. By the time it got there, it was usually spoiled (or, as they would have said, "spoilt"). Someone realized that if they brewed the beer with an extra dose of hops, that it stood a better chance of withstanding the long voyage. They were right, and India pale ales were born. (Note: this is also how port and sherry were invented, except they were going in the other direction; from Portugal and Spain to the British Isles.)
The primary characteristic of an IPA, then, is a strong and bitter hop flavour. So much for Alexander Keith's – it is no more distinctive than any other big Canadian domestic brew. Such beers are differentiated only by marketing. In fact, our own Good Beer Blog host Alan has rightly called Keith's "The IPA that isn't an IPA."
Happily, there has been resurgence in interest in IPAs lately, which is evidenced by some of the recent product launches from various smaller breweries. I recently tried two, side by side. One from Sleeman Brewing in Ontario (arguably, not really a small brewery) and one from the tiny Quebec brewery L'Alchimiste.