Beer History: India Pale Ale

We invite you to sit back with a cold one and enjoy a guest post by bartender, history major and story-teller extraordinaire: the one, the only, Nick Blakeslee.

There are many different styles of beer in the world.  Beer Advocate puts the number around 104, but styles are constantly being invented or improved upon, mixed or matched, tweaked or tailored.  Once upon a time, there were only a handful of selections: stouts, porters, pale ales and the like.   But where did those staples come from?  Great question, hypothetical inner monologue that brings up the perfect questions exactly when I need them.  Today we’re going to talk about a beer that has become a staple for breweries all over America for the past decade: the India Pale Ale – or as you probably know it, the IPA.

The IPA is a relatively new ale, one that’s only graced bars, saloons, restaurants, tap houses and my weird teacher’s secret cache, since around the turn of the 18th century, making it one of the newest ales brewed to date, considering beer has been consumed for the past several thousand years or so.

Now, before we get started, like many things in history it’s hard to say which story is true – which is legend and which is just a bold-faced lie. Humans are OK at record keeping, but they’re even better at telling stories. We have the uncanny ability to embellish, over-exaggerate or just straight make things up: for example, my uncle thinks he’s a good fisherman.

Artist’s rendition of what Billy McSchnockered might have looked like.

Which is where our friend, the IPA comes in.  In our research, we found that there’s no agreed upon origin story of the IPA.  There’s no clear document that says in bold typeface, “THE IPA WAS CREATED BY BILLY McSCHOCKERED, THE TOWN DRUNK OF LONDON IN 1821.”  Instead, like much of history, we have to piece together bits of a story—some truth, others fiction—in order to find the semblance of what really happened.

So we’ll start with a disclaimer: there’s no 100% agreed upon origin story of the IPA.  That said, there is one that highlights the most common history told of the IPA; a story that provides at least a bit of insight, as to how the iconic beer may have gotten its name.  It involves soldiers far away from home, an overreaching brewer and colonial England.

At the time of the IPA’s creation, pale ales were very popular in England.  Often floral, a milder flavor than the stout and porters, this beer was enjoyed year-round, but especially in the summer time in England—a season lasting about four days.

Though recently losing the thirteen territories, England was nearing the height of its empire – it spanned from Europe, to the Americas, to Africa, Australia and India.  Being a large empire means having a lot of peacekeepers, which is just a fancy way of saying, “people with guns.”  The Royal Navy was at its zenith, and it held the trophy for largest naval force since the sinking of the Spanish Armada in the late 16th century.  Having the largest navy meant England was able to plant loads of flags all over the world to claim territories for queen and country (kind of like a kid at a dessert buffet sticking his finger in every cake to claim them for himself).  Wealth, power and commerce flowed freely into the hands of England.  This tiny country had all the things it’d need to become the largest empire in the world and eventually hold sway over a quarter of the world’s population.

And this large population needed food and drink…and beer.  British soldiers were actually given a beer ration, because beer is a great way to keep people happy (especially those very far away from home).  India was a relatively new territory for England (who showed up early in the 17th century), and supplies were sent from all over for their soldiers, but one thing could never quite make it: a nice pale ale.

Route from England to India, before the construction of the Suez Canal.

Because here’s the deal with pale ales: they’re delicate, temperamental and arguably weak in constitution (basically me in middle school… and high school…and now.).  It was much too hot to brew a pale ale in India (remember: no refrigerators) meaning the beer would need to be imported from England.  But the delicate beer couldn’t make it; merchants had to go around the tip of South Africa (the Suez Canal wasn’t constructed until 1869), meaning the trip would take six months by ship, one way.  Ales only take 2-4 weeks to brew, so the beer would be sitting in barrels for 5 months.  That, compounded with dangerous seas and mankind’s uncanny ability to reason their way into drinking someone else’s beer, meant that the ales never survived the trip.

Porters and stouts could last the voyage – the heartier beverage is naturally more resilient, due to many things (like its color, inherent ingredients and abv.).  But having a porter on a hot 115 degree day isn’t exactly what many would call refreshing.

English soldiers wanted beer, specifically refreshing English beer.  So a London brewer by the name of George Hodgson took up the case.  They decided to prolong the life of the beer by changing one simple thing: adding freshly picked hops, and lots of them.  The increase in hops elongated the brewing process while also bittering the beverage and increasing the alcohol content.  This allowed the more delicate pale ale to be resilient to natural beer-destroying things like bacteria.  He called it the “October Beer.”  Rumor has it that Hodgson steeped the first test brew in a tea kettle, though that can’t be confirmed as a fact or simply a legend.

His idea for including more hops originally came from barley wine, a style of beer rich in both color and alcohol content that used just-picked hops for the brewing process. These beers lasted years, and sometimes lords and ladies would brew a batch for a newly born child and tap it once that child turned 18.

Using this method of brewing—incorporating fresh hops and plenty of them—Hodgson sent off his first batch of beer late in 1821.  That first shipment showed up on the shores of India in January of 1822.  It was a historical event even then, “Hodgson’s warranted prime picked ale of the genuine October brewing. Fully equal, if not superior, to any ever before received in the settlement.”

For a time Hodgson and his sons had a monopoly on the beer style, being the only brewery that made and shipped this style beer to India. They also let merchants pay for their beer shipments after reaching India and returning, meaning merchants were more inclined to take his goods because they could pay him after they’d seen a profit and made the voyage back.  But after overreaching for a price deal, other breweries threw their hats into the ring.  Burton-on-Trent and Bass breweries both created a similar style of ale and thus the style of beer was popularized.  That said, Burton-on-Trent was the first to designate it by its modern name: the India Pale Ale, or IPA for short.  Before long, it found its way back to Europe and became another popular style alongside porters, stouts, pales, and the like.

And that’s where things begin to differentiate.  Some sources say an IPA style beer had been brewed in England for decades prior to Hodgson ever conceiving the idea.  Others say Hodgson wasn’t even the first one to send it off to India.

Whatever the origin is, there is truth to Hodgson’s creation of his beer.  It happened.  It was sent.  It was loved by the British Peace Keepers.  He just may not have been the first, but it was certainly the most romantic of them all; and if history has taught us anything, it’s that we humans love a good story, even if it’s a bit exaggerated.  We like the idea of this beloved beer having a romantic origin story: of being created in a small kitchen, in something as iconic to British culture as a tea kettle, and sent off to imbibe soldiers in a faraway land.  That sounds a lot nicer than, “It just kind of showed up, no one really knows.”

Since then, the IPA has become a staple for breweries to have on tap.  Frankly, we love it.  It’s a beer that goes great with any season, and its relative flexibility means there’s a style of IPA for everyone: a Ruby Grapefruit IPA from Wildcard brewery in Redding for some summertime citrus, or perhaps Ninkasi’s Tricerihops for the masochists out there that love their beer to taste like the Dead Sea.

And that’s all I’ve got on the IPA.  Look at that.  You learned something today.  Feel free to gloat about it and be that person at the dinner table that shares a bordering-inane piece of triva.  Better yet, appreciate the men and women before us who made it possible for us to enjoy such a delicious beverage.