IPA – A History

The History of IPA

Pale Ale and Industrialisation

The history of IPA starts not in India but in London and then found its home in Burton-upon-Trent, an ordinary town in Staffordshire, Britain, where beer has probably been brewed since 1004, when an abbey was founded there. Monks were (and still are in Belgium) prodigious brewers, and would have used the water from the local River Trent to brew their early ale. What made Burton so special, therefore made it the most important centre of brewing in Britain (and even the world for a while) was the water from the river. Its natural minerals happened to be perfect for brewing beer, particularly (as it turned out) Pale Ales. In fact today many brewers add mineral content (Gypsum or Sulphate) to their beer before brewing – a process still called ‘Burtonisation’.

Brewing in Britain was largely done by the owners of pubs, inns and ale-houses for their immediate customers, and so the beer would not have had to travel far before it was consumed. With the onset of early industrialisation there was suddenly a need for larger brewers who could supply the fast growing urban populations, and thankfully the growth of the canal system gave them the means to transport it. Burton, already noted for its fine ales quickly became an important centre of Brewing.

At the end of the 17th century the process of kilning malts was becoming more efficient, due to the use of coke, derived from coal. This meant that you could kiln a malt (stop it from germinating by heating it) without the use of so much direct heat. This had two consequences; the finished malt was paler than before and it produced more fermentable sugars per grain. Initially this was a fairly expensive process, so the early pale ales (more likely to be a dark amber) were mainly drunk by the wealthy, who were also the ones who could see the colour, due to the fact that glassware was so expensive. (The ordinary drinker would still have used a pewter or leather tankard for some time!)

The beer that became IPA descended from a beer known as “October Ales” – named because they were brewed in that month, and were highly thought of because of their strength, and extreme aging potential (as well as high hopping levels). Documents telling of 25 year old October beers being consumed and enjoyed exist from 1773.

The East India Company

The Company was founded in 1600 as a speculative venture that would trade spices from the east back to Britain. This company would come to be, in its heyday, one of the largest, wealthiest, most successful and most unethical companies the world has ever known. The British government did not formally take India from the Indians but nationalised the Company in 1857 after the Indians “mutinied” against them. They had their own army (made up of British and Indian soldiers) a vast merchant fleet and many local maharajahs in their pocket.

The men of the company required large amounts of alcohol, and after discovering the local spirit ‘Arak’ was too strong and often so impure that it caused severe health problems, alternatives were sought. Madeira was the most popular alternative as it kept extremely well, and could be picked up en route to the Indian Subcontinent. Small amounts of beer also made it in bottles to India in the 1600s but not in great amounts, and from accounts at the time were very fizzy and frothy, having been fermenting in the bottle on the voyage over. (Perhaps this was less common as it is now!) One of the first mentions of “Pale Beer” in India, was from 1718 when Joseph Collett, a Governor of one of the company’s outposts, was asked to explain how he and his colleagues had drunk so much, at the company’s expense. The company documents detailed large amounts of Burton Ale and Pale Beer as part of the complaint. The Pale Beer that had made it successfully to India predates the term “IPA” by almost 100 years, but we know that pale ale was being made to survive the long journey to the East. The fact that it is a ‘beer’ rather than an ‘ale’ tells us that it was well hopped, as at the time ‘ale’ referred to a minimally hopped brew, and ‘beer’ was a more hopped style.

Porter in India

The myth that Porter arrived spoiled and had to be replaced by a hoppy ale is exactly that – a myth. There are records of George Hodgson’s brewery of London, exporting porter to India as late as 1823, and Whitbread Brewery until the late 19th Century, and it may well have been a hoppy strong porter, as the preservative properties of the hop were well known before the export of beers to India, (and may have in fact resembled a Cascadian Dark Ale – Bill Schneller of Oregon’s ‘Brew Crew’ recently recreated a 19th Century India Export Porter recipe and this seems to be the case, the main difference being the use of English hops rather than Cascadian varieties.)

At around the same time Burton brewers discovered a valuable export market in Russia via the Baltic ports and many made their fortune exporting their beer, especially porter, abroad as well as within Britain. But this wasn’t to last as import taxes soon spoiled their profit margins!

George Hodgson

In London a Brewer named George Hodgson founded his brewery in 1751, and although he wasn’t the first exporter of Pale Ale to India, he became the first large exporter of beer to the Subcontinent. He was making Strong October beer and Porter in London but as this was before the age of advertising and trade marks (Bass was the first ever in Great Britain in 1875) the names of brewers were not often noted on manifests, so the early Pale Ales that made it to India in small amounts, we know were from Burton breweries, but not who made them!

George Hodgson’s Brewery was located in Bow in East London, right next to the docks where the merchant ships loaded and unloaded their cargo, so was ideally placed to get his beer on board the “Indiamen” – ships bound for India. In 1785 the Calcutta Gazette advertised “Pale Ales, light and excellent”, so there were already pale ales making it in fairly large amounts before Hodgson started his export business. Hodgson’s Pale Ale gets its first mention in India in 1801 and would probably have been a paler version of his strong October ale, as this was the beer he was brewing that was designed to be kept, and had a proven track record of doing so. IPA was developed slowly, rather than a single brewer having a “Eureka” moment so the first ales that were sent out were probably fairly different than the ones that British ex-pats were drinking at in the early 1900’s. The development was towards a more pale and hoppy and consequently more refreshing brew that was preferred in the heat of India.

Hodgson was not the only one brewing IPAs and in 1822 Samuel Allsopp of Burton was invited to brew an “India Ale” by the East India Company. Allsopp became the premier brewer of India Pale Ales and Burton brewers perfected the style. Edinburgh also became an important brewer of the style, exporting large amounts of it from around 1845-50 onwards.

Domestic Consumption

Contrary to popular belief there was no shipwreck laden with IPA that washed ashore and started a domestic love affair with this hoppy ale, but brewers sold some of their IPA at home, and people liked the flavour, so as its popularity grew, it became more available. IPA’s were soon being brewed for the home market, but as the real thing had time to condition on its journey, the home market are thought to have been less hopped, so that it was drinkable a lot sooner, but still probably double the hopping level of ordinary Pale Ales.

A Turn For the Worst

The decline in the importance of India as a market at the start of the 20th Century coincided with the start of the First World War. These two events saw the decline of the strength and hop levels of IPA in Britain. Hops and Barley are the two main ingredients (aside from water) in all beer, and they were used in large amounts to make this a strong and hoppy ale. The outbreak of war saw alcohol levels reduced (by way of a levy on any beer that had over 1055 OG) for the sake of safety in the workplace (specifically munitions factories) as well as using the land on which barley and hops were grown for food. The Brewing trade was still reeling from a tax hike levied in 1900, as well pressure from the temperance movement and other laws inflating the cost of a pub licence to closing what the government considered “Superfluous Pubs”. A further restriction in 1917 restricted 50% of a brewery’s production to beers of 1030 OG. After the war a maximum OG of 1044 was still in place in Great Britain (1051 OG in Ireland) until 1921. This resulted in the average OG of IPA before the war dropping from 1065 to 1048, and with less hops to go round, the IPA had become a standard strength Pale Ale. Many British brewers produce beer called IPA today, but although many of them are excellent beers, they are not IPAs.

Mordern IPA

Many North Americans talk of English or British IPAs as a weak version of their own rediscovered style, but nothing could be further from the truth. The original IPAs made in Burton, London and Edinburgh in the 19th century were extremely hoppy, and were recorded as being usually between 6 – 7.5% ABV, although some may have been stronger. The watered down versions we often see today are not what was being exported for over 100 years. Sadly only a few breweries are making a genuine British IPA; one of the best is Meantime Brewing’s IPA, well worth searching out in the UK or occasionally available in the US. The main difference between a North American and a British version are the hops used. The Pacific Northwest varieties have a more tangy citrus quality compared with a floral spiciness found with the English ones. The malt profile can also be a lot firmer and sweeter in British IPAs and the North American versions tend to have a cleaner and more defined hop note.

IPA’s resurgance in the 1990’s onwards probably deserves its own page, as the US craft breweries inspired Canadian, British and other countries’ craft breweries to make new versions too. From Brewdog in Edinburgh, making American style IPAs and Meantime in London making historic IPAs to Raasted in Denmark, Driftwood in British Columbia, Dieu de Ciel in Quebec, Brooklyn in New York and Lagunitas in Calfornia – IPAs are a mainstay of many craft breweries the world over. So the beer that was designed to travel has a great legacy – it is still is traveling in a way, just being made the world over, rather than transported! In fact the final irony is that the country for where it was destined, India, has yet to embrace it in the modern era – perhaps there is a great market waiting to be tapped…again!


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