The IPA is one of the most popular drinks around, but it’s a beer style that has seen fortunes waiver over time. From being the ale that dominated a whole market, to becoming largely forgotten, and now its triumphant re-emergence, the history of the IPA is a story worth telling.
What does IPA mean?
The first clue to the history of IPA brewing comes from the name. IPA stands for India Pale Ale, a reminder that the original brew was created specifically to meet the needs of drinkers in India where sweltering weather made the need for a crisp, refreshing drink paramount.
The original heyday of the IPA was back in the 1800s; a result of several factors coming together, including global trade, colonialism, and new brewing methods.
The East India Company began trading in the east in 1600 and by the 1800s had become the de facto ruler in India, in fact British Rule in India was a direct result of the UK government nationalising the East India Company in 1858. The company held its own army, made of British and Indian soldiers, and like most armies it wanted to keep its soldiers, and other employees, fully lubricated.
There was a problem though, the sea journey from UK to the sub-continent could take over five months in humid conditions. Beer didn’t travel well and the ale that arrived was subpar and unwelcome. Brewers knew the solution was adding more hops and increasing the alcohol levels and dark porters were already making the journey successfully in the 1800s. Most people don’t want to drink dark, heavy, porters when the sun is shining, leaving an opportunity for a more refreshing beer that could survive the trip.
This is where october beer enters the story. The development of pale ales (made possible by using pale malts) made lighter-tasting, crisper beers possible. One new style was october ale, brewed in the month its named after, well-hopped, and intended to mature over time, this made it an ideal candidate for Indian export.
Adverts for ‘pale ale’ appeared in the Calcutta Gazette in 1785, but the first exporter of note was George Hodgson’s brewery in London. Their Hodgson’s Pale Ale was being advertised in India by 1801 and was likely an october ale variant, it’s pre-eminent position probably helped by the brewery’s location near the docks where India-bound ships departed.
The next big development came in 1821. The East India Company had grown unhappy with Hodgson’s Brewery’s business practices and asked Samuel Allsopp in Burton-on-Trent to make an ‘India Ale’ for export. The significance of Allsopp’s location would be pivotal for the IPA story.
Burton-on-Trent is a special place. The sulphate-rich waters which run through the town create hoppier, crisper-tasting beers (to this day many brewers add sulphates to recreate the Burton taste in a process called Burtonisation) and this made Allsopp’s India Pale Ale better suited for the long sea journey, and better tasting when it arrived.
This was the original ‘peak IPA’. Burton-on-Trent style IPAs became massively popular in India, offering a refreshing, bitter, taste that suited Anglo-Indian preferences. UK brewers also sold their IPAs into the local market, creating a market at home and in the far-off sub-continent.
The decline of the IPA
Fortunes changed for IPAs at the start of the 20th Century. By the early 1900s India was brewing its own local beers and had less need for imports, then the First World War restricted the availability of hops and barley for ale, and additional levies were placed on higher-alcohol drinks.
Add to this a change in tastes for lagers, gin, whisky, and more significantly a move away from alcohol and towards temperance and tea, and IPA was caught in a perfect storm that destroyed its market. IPAs were still sold but they used fewer hops and had lower ABVs, turning them into standard pale ales in all but name. Beers such as Greene King IPA reflect this change; a beer that has much more in common with English bitters than India Pale Ales.
Craft beers and the IPA reassurance
Something happened in the 1980s that brought IPAs out of obscurity. In the USA the lifting of brewing restrictions (in the late 70s) meant mcirobrewies could start up again. Supplying brewpubs and their local market, they focussed on well-hopped ales, with higher ABVs. Sounds familiar? These were IPA made with purely American hops, giving them strong citrus overtones.
In the UK, the craft beer scene has developed strongly over the last 20 years, with a similar emphasis on well-hopped ales. Brewdog were an early proponent of this approach, and probably the most well-known name.
It’s impossible to say how much these modern IPAs share tastes with their counterparts from history. Brewers back then did supplement UK hops with US-imports so there may well be some flavour overlap, but with so many variables affecting how a beer is made, the importance of Burton water for example, nobody can say for certain.
Six modern IPAs to try
IPAs are everywhere, and with so many variations to choose from it’s difficult to know where to start. If you want to go back to IPAs 1800s roots, Worthington’s White Shield was first brewed in 1829. It’s changed over the years but is possibly the nearest, easy to find, modern beer with original IPA elements.
BrewDog Punk IPA is the beer that sparked the modern UK craft beer revolution. Sharp, refreshing, and full of grapefruit and pineapple zest, it shows what UK brewers can do with new world hops.
For a different take on the IPA, try Thornbridge Wild Raven, a black IPA made with roasted malts it adds coffee, and dark chocolate aromas to the IPA hops. Fitting as the roasted malt porters were the first drinks to successfully make the journey to India.
The American IPA movement can be split broadly into two camps. West Coast, and East Coast. From the West Coast IPAs, choose Anchor IPA, it’s simpler taste profile making it a gentle introduction to the world of US hops. Brooklyn East IPA is similarly a clean-tasting IPA from the East Coast tradition. The sweet malt undertones balancing out the citrus hop flavours.
When you’re ready to take the hop levels to the max, sample Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA. Using a revolutionary ‘hop torpedo’ the beer is packed with fresh pine, grapefruit, and lemon.