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India Pale Ale, a history:

The truth about the world’s most contentious beer style

IPA, India Pale Ale. The famed and ubiquitous beer style has evolved over time to mean many things to many people. A range of sub-styles have emerged alongside a riot of misconceptions and received wisdom. Through this review of the origins of India Pale Ale Pete Brown aims to cut through the conjecture, bust myths and provide you with an authoritative account of one of the most profitable and popular beer styles of all time.

Pete Brown 

Award winning author, broadcaster, consultant, journalist Pete Brown specialises in food and drink, especially beer, cider and pubs. Three times beer Writer of the Year, Pete is currently Chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers.  

Introduction

India Pale Ale (IPA) is the style that launched the global craft beer movement. A traditional British Ale style with its roots in eighteenth century colonialism, it was revived and reinvented by the American craft beer movement in the last years of the twentieth century. It accounts for between a quarter a third of the American craft beer market, and is the first beer style brewed by most craft brewers around the world. In the UK, it’s gone from being a forgotten beer style that was a shadow of its former self, to being the driving force behind Britain’s beer revival.

But for such a popular beer style, there’s a great deal of confusion surrounding it. Its origins are lost in time, and its mythology makes it the most argued-about beer style in the world.

This guide will give you the facts (where known) and the context that explains them, and will shed some light on the ambiguity that surrounds the world’s most contentious beer style.

Here, we’re going to take a look at the history of IPA, examine some of the enduring myths around the style, and explore how it has evolved over the last couple of centuries to give us an ever-diversifying range of beers that all fall – or have fallen at some stage – under the broad label of “IPA”. 

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“But for such a popular beer style, there’s a great deal of confusion surrounding it. Its origins are lost in time, and its mythology makes it the most argued-about beer style in the world”.

 

— Pete Brown

Historical context around the emergence of India Pale Ale

IPA was the world’s first global beer style, made famous by the world’s first multi-national corporation. It was the product of necessity, luck, and the global trade that would lead to the rise of the British Empire.

The British in India

In the sixteenth century, advances in navigation made it possible to traverse oceans safely. European powers such as the Portuguese, Dutch and British competed to find sea routes to the ‘spice islands’ of South-East Asia – a trade so lucrative it was worth going to war for. The British East India Company lost that war to the Dutch, so instead of spices they began trading fabrics with India. In order to get the best prices for these fabrics, the British left behind permanent stations known as ‘factories’ from the early 1600s onwards.

Gradually, through trade, treaty and, eventually, military conquest, the British East India Company acquired most of the sub-continent. Having a private corporation in charge of a country, with its own army, navy and tax raising powers, resulted in brutal rule with famine and millions of Indians dead. In 1857, the Indians rose up against the Company. Although the revolt was eventually quashed, the British government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company, and established the Raj, which would rule until Indian independence in 1947.

The economics and practicalities of beer in India

From the start, the British in India enjoyed a drink. There wasn’t much to do between trading seasons, and drunkenness was rife. The local drink, a naturally fermented palm spirit called arak, was so strong and rough it proved fatal to many Europeans: in the 1820s, the average life expectancy of a British soldier in India was just three months. In order to rule, the British authorities needed a drink that was of high enough strength and quality that it could keep soldiers and civilians away from arak, and safe enough to not kill them.

Before refrigeration, it was too hot to brew beer in India, so it had to be imported instead. The Indian beer trade began on a very informal basis: the huge ships known as East Indiamen returned laden with cargo that made fortunes, but their captains were free to fill the hold with whatever they wished on the outward journey.

As well as furniture, crockery and works of art, they took beer, Claret and Madeira to trade with the colonists, on a journey that typically took six months, following the Trade Winds across the Atlantic to South America, then re-crossing the South Atlantic, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and traversing the Indian Ocean to Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

Who invented IPA, and when was it?

There are records of pale ale from Burton being consumed in large quantities as early as 1717, when the East India Company criticised the expense accounts of its clerks in Madras. It’s thought that the beer that eventually became known as India Pale Ale evolved from ‘October ales’ that were brewed for keeping, and were therefore high in alcohol and hopping rates – both of which were known to help preserve beer for longer.

These beers were advertised in India simply as ‘pale ale’. The term ‘India Pale Ale’ only started appearing in press advertisements in the 1820s – over a century after pale ale was first recorded in India – and was a term used to sell the taste of India to former ex-pats who had returned home to the UK. So IPA was never ‘invented’ – it evolved over centuries, and continues to do so.

“So IPA was never ‘invented’ – it evolved over centuries, and continues to do so.”

 

— Pete Brown

Part of the mystique of IPA is that over its long, exotic history, it has become shrouded in myth and legend. Here’s the truth behind the most popular stories.

 

 

IPA was invented by London brewer George Hodgson in 1785.

Hodgson’s brewery certainly cornered the Indian market for many years, thanks to its proximity to the East India Docks in London. But India-bound ships carrying beer also left from Liverpool and Bristol, and other brewers are recorded as selling their beer in India around the same time as Hodgson.

1785 is often cited as the date Hodgson began selling pale ale in India, on the basis that this was the earliest appearance of advertisements for Pale Ale in the Calcutta Gazette. But the reason this is the earliest known ad is that this is when the Gazette was first published – not necessarily when the beer first arrived. Many drinks advertised in the Gazette are not attributed to a particular brewer. Hodgson’s was first advertised by name in 1801.

VERDICT: FALSE

“But for such a popular beer style, there’s a great deal of confusion surrounding it. Its origins are lost in time, and its mythology makes it the most argued-about beer style in the world”.

 

— Pete Brown

IPA became popular in England following a shipwreck in 1827, when an India-bound cargo was washed ashore near Liverpool, and the locals acquired a taste for it.

This enticing story was first mentioned in an account of the history of IPA first published fifty years after the fact, giving no references or citations. It is true that cargo ships were frequently wrecked off the British coast, and their contents were routinely salvaged and sold off. So such a shipwreck may well have occurred. But IPA was already increasingly popular in Britain by this time, so even if it did happen, it was not responsible for introducing IPA to the UK.

VERDICT: AT LEAST MOSTLY FALSE                                        

IPA was always brewed highly hopped and high in alcohol to survive the long sea journey.

This is a contentious one in that it has been ‘debunked’ by leading beer historians, who have found evidence in brewing records of relatively low-strength, low-hopped beers being brewed for transport to India. So IPA didn’t have to be strong and highly hopped, especially as the sea voyage became faster in the second half of the nineteenth century. But there are also brewing records of beer commissioned by the India Office for its troops that would have resulted in a very strong, extremely hoppy beer. And it remains true that these characteristics would have helped the beer travel well.

VERDICT: TRUE, BUT NOT ALWAYS

IPA was always brewed highly hopped and high in alcohol to survive the long sea journey.

This is a contentious one in that it has been ‘debunked’ by leading beer historians, who have found evidence in brewing records of relatively low-strength, low-hopped beers being brewed for transport to India.

So IPA didn’t have to be strong and highly hopped, especially as the sea voyage became faster in the second half of the nineteenth century. But there are also brewing records of beer commissioned by the India Office for its troops that would have resulted in a very strong, extremely hoppy beer. And it remains true that these characteristics would have helped the beer travel well.                                                                       

VERDICT: TRUE, BUT NOT ALWAYS

 

IPA was unique, because the gruelling conditions of the sea journey to India meant other beers styles were undrinkable by the time they arrived.

IPA is undoubtedly the beer that captured the imagination of Anglo-Indian colonists, being mentioned in contemporary accounts of life in India far more often than any other beer style. However, porter was shipped to India in quantities at least as large as IPA, and the Calcutta Gazette also carried ads for brown ale, small beer, cider and many other drinks.                                                                                              

VERDICT: FALSE

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After being tested for quality, substandard beer was poured away on the Calcutta dockside.                                                    

IPA was certainly tested for quality when it arrived. The locals were looking for a beer to be ‘ripe’, to have undergone maturation on its long sea journey. (Interestingly, ‘ripeness’ would have involved vivid hop aromas fading back and developing into something more complex. The fruity aromas we love in a ‘fresh’ IPA today were considered undesirable in beer as late as the 1960s.) But testing was mainly to determine a price point. Even poor-quality beer was too valuable to waste; it would simply be sold more cheaply. Even if the beer was undrinkable, it would be put to a variety of other uses, including as an ingredient in ketchup and boot polish.

VERDICT: FALSE

Modern American IPAs are not ‘real’ IPA because of the distinct character of American hops—which original IPAs would never have had.

Records from brewers such as Bass show that they were brewing so much beer in the late nineteenth century they had to import hops from Germany and the US. However, the fruity aromas of American hops were considered off-putting, so American hops were used primarily as bittering hops rather than aroma hops.                                             

VERDICT: TRUE IN ONE SENSE, BUT ULTIMATELY FALSE.

IPA – A Style Guide

Navigating IPA

You may have noticed that ‘IPA’ gets slapped on a lot of beers these days that are so diverse in character, it’s hard to imagine them as all belonging to one style. Some of this is fairly cynical marketing: put IPA on the label and, whatever is inside, you’ll sell more of it. But it’s also a reflection on a beer style that is in a constant state of evolution: your perspective on what constitutes a ‘proper’ IPA is determined to some extent by how old you are, and when you first started drinking it.                      

What exactly is an India Pale Ale?

The term ‘pale ale’ has been in use for 400 years. In terms of colour, all we know is that it would have been significantly paler than other beers at the time, meaning anything lighter than mid-brown could at some point have been a ‘pale ale’.

In terms of flavour profile, the emphasis is definitely on hops rather than malt, although traditionally there is a good balance between the two. India Pale Ale was notable in that it evolved from beers that had been designed for cellar ageing, so it is generally recognised as having a heritage of being pale, relatively high in alcohol (by today’s standards) and having an assertively bitter, aromatic character.

 

A note on BJCP Style Guidelines

The American Beer Judge Certification Programme (BJCP) is generally recognised as being the world’s leading arbiter of what constitutes particular beer styles, although it must be noted that it has a very America-centric point of view. It currently lists at least nine different variations on IPA, which it does not spell out as ‘India Pale Ale’ because ‘none of these beers historically went to India, and many aren’t pale.’ It also groups most IPAs together as derivatives of an American beer style, with its take on what it thinks of as ‘English IPA’ listed separately. The guidelines form a useful basis for judging beer in competitions, especially in the United States, but don’t really help the general reader understand what IPA is.

Eighteenth Century London IPA

Few accounts exist of the character of the first beers that came retrospectively to be called India Pale Ales. One contemporary account refers to Hodgson’s beer tasted in the UK as ‘thick and muddy’ with a ‘rank, bitter flavour’. Allsopp’s brewer Job Goodhead, the first brewer in Burton to emulate it, initially spat it out when he first tasted it, because it was so bitter. But it was hailed in India as being ‘of superior quality’ and was frequently compared to wine and champagne. This suggests the voyage had a profound impact on the character of the beer.

Nineteenth Century Burton IPA

When Frederick Hodgson (George’s grandson) fell out with the East India Company in 1822, Campbell Marjoribanks, the company’s chairman, invited Burton brewer Samuel Allsopp to brew a beer like Hodgson’s for the Indian market. Allsopp, followed by Bass and Worthington, brewed a similar beer to Hodgson but with one key difference: Burton water is much higher in sulphates than London water, and the resulting beer was brighter and more sparkling, the hop character crisp and sharp. This is the variant that would make IPA world-famous. 

 

 

Twentieth Century English IPA

Ever heard someone say that Greene King IPA is not a ‘real’ IPA? This beer was first brewed in 1928, and recently unearthed brewing books show it has changed very little since then. If you were able to ask any British brewer working between the early 1900s and the 1990s, they would tell you that Greene King was fairly typical of IPA at the time: much reduced in strength thanks to beer duty being calculated by ABV and measures to reduce alcohol consumption during the First World War, it may have been a shadow of its former self, but in its time, this is what IPA was, and in some cases, still is.

 

 

Late Twentieth Century American IPA

The embryonic American craft beer movement, desperate for flavourful beer, looked to Europe for inspiration. A British Guild of Beer Writers seminar in 1994 brought together historians and brewers from both sides of the Atlantic to learn about the history and characteristics of pre-20th century IPA. Restored to its original strength, and brewed with aromatic US hops that were now celebrated for their flavour characteristics, the US reinvented the style as an incredibly aromatic beer that also showed assertive bitterness. Traditionally balanced by a solid malt backbone, it tended to be orange-brown in appearance.

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Black IPA

How can you have a black pale ale? There was an attempt to reclassify this beer as ‘Cascadian dark ale’ to avoid such confusion, but the original name stuck. Brewed with darker malts for a fuller body, this paradoxical beer retains a vivid IPA hop character but has something else besides.

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New England IPA (NEIPA)

Very pale, with very low bittering hops but an intense aroma hop addition, typically citrus and tropical fruit in character. Intentionally unfiltered and hazy for a smooth, soft character, adjuncts such as oats or flour are often added to increase the haze. Currently so popular, many newer beer drinkers believe this style is IPA.

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West Coast IPA

What used to be known simply as ‘American-style’ IPA has been repositioned by NEIPA. It now tends to be paler and hazier than it was, but remains more bitter and balanced than its east coast cousin.

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Brut IPA

A recent invention, widely dismissed as a fad, this variant uses a special enzyme to help ferment all the residual sugar out of the beer, leaving it extremely dry.

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Session IPA

If IPA is a strong pale ale, then isn’t a weaker version of IPA just a pale ale? Apparently not: session IPAs attempt to deliver all the hoppy hit of full-strength IPA, so they’re more flavourful and intense than a traditional pale ale, even if they are similar in ABV.

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Conclusion

Part of the enigma of IPA is that it exists in a constant state of evolution. In many ways, it’s the opposite of what it once was. Originally a beer that was designed specifically for ageing, we are now urged to drink it quickly, to preserve the delicate aromas that for years were considered disagreeable and ‘unripe’.

Ten years ago, IPA brewers were racing to see who could boast the most extreme bitterness. Now, they compete to offer beers with no bitterness at all.

Given that IPA has always evolved, it is perhaps unfair to expect it to stop evolving now.

What seems to endure for ever is a fascination with a beer style – with the character of the beer itself, and the history, romance and myth around it – that no other beer ever seems likely to match.

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Further reading 

Brown, Pete, Hops & Glory: One Man’s Search for the Beer That Built the British Empire, Pan Macmillan, 2009,

 

 

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