I didn’t even know about IPA, or “India Pale Ale” until a couple of years ago, after being tutored in beer basics by Kathy, who not only reviews books, but has become an expert on all things beer, thanks to the store run by her husband and her son (with Kathy’s help of course), Crafted: The Beer Store in Simpsonville, SC.
Previously, I selected beer for Jim by the label, a practice to which he strenuously objected. Then Kathy taught me a bit about being more discriminating, and I have adapted by choosing beers by labels from within the categories Jim prefers at least! (I save my favorite bottles and put them out on the shelf.) But these days, choices seem overwhelmingly dominated by IPAs.
According to Foodimentary, the preeminent National Food Holiday site, August 7 is National IPA Day. IPA is, as declared on the website, “consistently the top selling craft beer style in America, representing around 18.4% of total craft beer sales.”
But as The Guardian commented in 2015, “If you’d said the initials “IPA” to a barman 10 years ago, he might well have looked at you blankly.” [I’m sure the author of the article actually meant “he or she”.] This same author observes that IPA was developed to solve the problem the British had of sending beer to their citizens and armies in India in the days of The Raj, as the period of British colonization was known; the journey took six months. [“The Economist” explains: “Britain’s territories on the Indian subcontinent were generally too hot for brewing. “] As told by The Guardian:
“In the 1780s, a London brewer called Hodgson answered the call by sending out a strong, heavily hopped beer called October ale that would normally be aged like wine before drinking. The beer not only survived the journey, but was found to have improved immeasurably. This was the prototype IPA; the beer gradually became paler and more refreshing to suit the Indian climate.”
Notably, according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine by William Bostwick, author of a book on “a history of the world according to beer”:
“. . . George Hodgson’s Bow brewery [was] just a few miles up the river Lea from the East India Company’s headquarters in east London. Outward bound, ships carried supplies for the army, who paid well enough for a taste of home, and particularly for beer, but the East India Company (EIC) made all its profit on the return trip, when its clippers rode low in the water, holds weighed with skeins of Chinese silk and sacks of cloves.”
The EIC director, who objected to the high prices resulting from Hodgson’s control of the market, urged a rival brewer, Allsopp, to come up with an IPA as well. Allsopp used the finest barley he could find and kilned it extra lightly to preserve its sweetness. Larger breweries also picked up on the IPA trend. According to Bostwick, waxing poetic on the original formulations:
“To recreate Allsop’s legendary brew, I’d need the best ingredients available today, and that meant Maris Otter malt and Cascade hops. If your pint smells like a loaf of country bread, if you could almost eat your beer with a knife and fork and slice of sharp Wensleydale, if one sip swims in Anglicized visions of hearths and hay lofts, chances are these images are conjured by Maris Otter barley. Maris Otter is a touchstone for British and British-style beer.”
The popularity of these costly beers diminished at first with the coming of refrigeration. But eventually the blandness of mass-marketed beers led to a “craft beer revolution.” When the craft beer movement caught on in America in the 1970’s, all sorts of innovative beers began to be made, including IPAs. The largest brewers of American IPAs use Cascade hops rather than Maris Otter, the former apparently providing more of a citrus bite. New England craft brewers actually leave some hop particulate and yeast in their IPAs rather than filtering them out, “leaving behind a weighty murkiness.”
This is the most widely accepted, but not the only story of the history of IPAs. There doesn’t seem to be much controversy over recent history. But you can find plenty of other versions on the web of the origin of IPAs, in what is now “a heated debate among beer historians.” For an example of one of the different views than the one referenced above, check this blog post.
And just one final note: what about those cute names for IPAs? As NPR reports:
“For newcomers to the increasingly crowded industry of more than 3,000 breweries, finding names for beers, or even themselves, is increasingly hard to do without risking a legal fight.”
[Note: The Brewers Association reports that as of 2016, there were over 5,200 craft breweries operating in the U.S.]