Bitters, stouts, porters, ales. Everyone has heard of those, even if they haven’t taken the opportunity to try them. But India Pale Ales (hereafter abbreviated as IPA’s)? Nearly everyone I’ve ever tippled a beer with, including my wife, wondered what the hell an IPA was.
Is it a pale ale brewed with curry powder? Historically, no, although today, there are brewers crafting pale ale recipes with coriander, cinnamon, cumin, garam masala, and turmeric. Is it a pale ale best served with foods from the Indian subcontinent? Again, no. The British in India in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries preferred porter to pale ale, and so, I surmise, drank porter with their Indian cuisine.
The India Pale Ale, with its weird name, is, I think, the least understood of all existent beer varieties. Its history is shrouded in misconception and its current resurgence has more in common with Modern Hebrew than it does with India.
Ask four different people about IPA’s, and you’re likely to get three different stories. Two of the four will probably tell you the same story, the most widely circulated one told so often that it starts to sound true: IPA’s were invented by the British to preserve the beers they were exporting to their troops in India. The story goes that typical beers, with average hop content, went sour on the four-month long boat trip from Europe to India. Hops and alcohol act as preservatives, so by upping the hops and alcohol content of UK export brews, these savory creations would arrive dreamily on Indian shores. Voila – a new brew type was born.
As with most mythologies, some elements are true; most are fabricated or heavily embellished.
Traditional pale ales, without the India moniker, have been around as early as 1675. Pale ales are lighter in color because they use pale malts. There is evidence that these non-India pale ales were being exported to India from at least the 1780’s. By 1830, the terms ‘bitter’ and ‘pale ale’ were synonymous with the British beer chugging public.
Beer did not necessarily need to be brewed stronger to survive the voyage to India. A passenger on board Captain Cook’s ship in the South Pacific in 1769 writes in his journal about supping on a glass of porter a year after he left England, and the drink tasting “excellently good.” No extra hops required. Porters and non-India pale ales were already arriving in India intact without the need to invent a new beer style.
Besides, beer at that time was already strong by today’s standards. The era of watery industrial brews with 3.5-4.0% ABV was still centuries in the future. The average beer of that time could have been 7% or more, plenty to preserve it for a long boat voyage. IPA’s weren’t considered particularly strong beers during their initial export phase from the UK.
So if most of the IPA mythology is bulls—t, where the $)@*$@) did IPA’s come from and why are they called India Pale Ales at all?
Here’s what we do know. By the 1760’s, British beer exporters were being encouraged to add extra hops to their brews as an additional preservative if the beer were being sent to warmer climes, not specifically India. No one seriously cared about India. By 1800, the Indian beer market was paltry, comprising only 9,000 barrels annually.
What likely happened is that all pale ales being sent out of Britain to sunnier stations were hoppier, both as an additional preservative measure and as another way for brewers to differentiate their beers from competitors. Well hopped ales were already popular in Britain at this time, aged in casks for one to two years before being enjoyed, much like wine.
One small brewer, George Hodgson, exported some of his pale ale to India. The warmer conditions on the voyage speed-aged the cask ale, and it arrived in India in ideal condition. The captains of the ships bringing these casks to India were given positive feedback on the batch, and Hodgson was encouraged to brew more. Hodgson enjoyed a disproportionate share of the Indian market largely due to his brewery’s proximity to the docks from which the British ships, the East Indiamen, sailed. His very generous credit terms didn’t hurt either. Ship captains were given 12-18 months credit.
Back in the UK, these ales were described as “pale ale as prepared for India” or “pale ale prepared for the East and West India Climate.” The first mention of the brew by its near current name occurred in the newspaper The Liverpool-Mercury in 1835, referring to it as East India Pale Ale, probably borrowing the East India descriptor from the ships which initially exported this type of ale and made it popular in other British territories. Before 1900, IPA’s were being brewed in Canada, the USA, and Australia. IPA’s looked poised to become a global beer variety at the beginning of the 20th century, but then, after the Second World War, industrial brewery consolidation began in earnest. Cheaper and watery lagers flooded the market, and smaller competitors went out of business. More expensive and unusual IPA’s faded away.
The present popularity of the IPA can be attributed to the burgeoning craft beer revolution in the USA in the 1980’s. Brewers like Sierra Nevada began crafting and selling their own pale ales and IPA’s as far back as 1980. These IPA’s differed markedly from the IPA’s of yore in the UK. The American versions used uniquely grown American varieties of hops and played fast and loose with traditional recipes to almost create a new kind of beer. I’ve sampled a few British-made old-style IPA’s, and they taste nothing like the American-style drink I came to associate with the IPA name . In that sense, the modern-day IPA we all know and love has much in common with modern Hebrew, which used an earlier version of Hebrew as its roots but was updated and altered significantly to be appropriate to a modern context.
These newer artisanal IPA’s, which really should be known as American style IPA’s to distinguish them from the older IPA styles using European hops, are now a global phenomenon. Newer British breweries manufacturing IPA’s, such as Brewdog, owe more of their inspiration to the American craft brewers of the last 30 years than they do to the IPA’s brewed in their own nation in prior centuries. And in recent years, Japanese craft brewers, like Hitachino (Nest Dai Dai Ale) and Baird (Teikoku IPA and Suruga Imperial IPA), have entered the IPA market, brewing IPA’s as good as, if not better, than many of the American brewers who spawned the IPA resurgence.
Next time you’re at a bar and spot someone drinking an IPA, ask him or her about the drink’s origins, and if s/he tells you the typical myth, bet an IPA to set the matter straight. In the right bar, with the right amount of IPA’s and ignorant drinkers, this little piece of knowledge should get you awfully drunk.