Setting the record straight
I arrive to interview Anthony Martin about Martin’s IPA, but it appears there’s little to talk about. I’ve received the brochure, which summarises everything neatly and effectively. “What more is there to add?” he asks. A lot, as it turns out, and our conversation runs well over the allotted hour, taking in the history of his company, the origins of Belgian beer styles and John Martin’s maritime theme. But the thing that gets him talking is something that touches a nerve in many Belgian breweries: the American IPA. “This is not the IPA as it was originally intended. The US craft beer movement has reinvented it as something completely different.” Martin is nodding vigorously towards my notepad and I get the impression
that he is bothered by the development. Then again, this is personal, going back to Martin’s grandfather John Martin, who came to Antwerp in the early 20th century and established a drinks distribution company. One of the first beers he developed was an IPA, although comparing this to the tongue-scraping IPAs we know today is like comparing two different beer styles. It was brewed in the UK first by Simonds Brewery and then by Courage, and came to be regarded as a classic in the British brewing tradition. But as bitterness fell out of fashion, the easier-drinking Martin’s Pale Ale took its place. It wasn’t until the company’s 100th anniversary that Martin decided to resurrect an old favourite. “With American brewers taking the IPA in strange directions, I wanted to set the record straight and relaunch Martin’s IPA as a signature product,” he says. “Not to sell big volumes, of course, but to set it up as a reference, so that people knew what an IPA should be like. “We had the original recipe, so it seemed a shame not to use it. And it’s an extension of the Pale Ale, which we’ve been brewing in Belgium for the past few decades.” The brewing method for the IPA is complex, centring on a triple hopping process, with hops added at the beginning and end of the boil and after fermentation. It’s hard to pull off, and the result is pretty special. The beer pours a dark, amber-orange colour with a decent layer of frothy head. It gives off both floral and fruity hop aromas and the taste is of bread and malt, offset by a gentle bitterness. This is a beer with character, but it’s also delicate; as Martin would say, it’s an IPA as it was supposed to be. The branding relies on John Martin’s famous maritime theme. “We use the symbol of the ship to represent my grandfather’s passage to Antwerp. And then of course we’re using the ship for IPA, because of the tea clippers that used to provide IPAs to India’s Malabar coast.” And if Martin were to sum up the difference between Martin’s IPA and American IPAs?
In a word: balance. “Belgian beers are much more balanced than American beers,” he says, “and rely more on traditional fermentation processes, which are inherited from the English.” Hang on a minute. The received wisdom is that Belgians developed these methods themselves through centuries of research and craft in monastic breweries. “Not true,” Martin says. “The Belgians did give hops to the English, but the English developed the pale ales, the scotch ales and the stout. Belgian special beers were made from these recipes. Duvel was originally an English beer; so was Bush. In terms of yeast, fermentation and style, the English beer tradition spawned the Belgian one.” Martin adds that his grandfather had 55 percent of the special beer market 50 years ago and was one of the pioneers. “At that time there were a few Trappist beers, which were distributed locally, and a few Lambics, but not much more than that. “But the English influence was huge. World War I had a lot to do with it, and there was another big burst after World War II. My grandfather, and others like Bass and Whitbread, started brewing in Belgium.” Before he raises too many hackles, Martin is quick to add that the Belgian special beer market has surpassed its roots. “The pupil has overtaken the teacher. These breweries were taken over by Belgians themselves, and the tradition took on a new life.” “So the Belgian special beer heritage is a recent one, although it’s one that Belgium can be very proud off and something that we have to fight to preserve.”