India Pale Ale (IPA) is a beer style characterized by high levels of alcohol and hops. It gained its name thanks to its huge popularity in British India and other outposts of the British Empire throughout the 19th century, a result of its keeping abilities on long sea voyages and its refreshing character when it finally reached its destination.
After enjoying phenomenal popularity around the world in the late 19th century, IPA suffered a sudden and steep decline and spent most of the 20th century as a pale shadow of its former self. Toward the end of the century, however, spurred by an explosion of interest in traditional beer styles driven mainly by North American craft brewers, it became the most popular craft beer style on the planet.
Of all beer styles, IPA is the most romanticized, mythologized, and misunderstood. It inspires the fiercest debate, the greatest reverence, and the wildest conjecture in the world of beer.
The problem with trying to pinpoint the birth or invention of IPA is that no one ever referred to it as “India pale ale” until it had been in existence for at least 50 years. IPA is a beer style that evolved over time and continues to evolve today. To understand its development, we need to understand the context that led to it.
In 1600 the British East India Company formed with a single purpose: to become masters of the lucrative spice trade.
When they were not buying, there was little else to do, and the factors drank. Madeira, wine, and beer were imported from Europe by the captains of the ships, the “East Indiamen,” but were originally available in small quantities at steep prices. Instead, many favored the local alternative. Arak was, by any standards, hardcore liquor. The local nondistilled version was made by fermenting raw palm juice in the hot sun…and that was it. Several of the first Englishmen to try it died after a 12-h session, and it went on to claim countless lives. As the factories grew into towns and the numbers of European clerks, lawyers, accountants, and—most of all—soldiers swelled, the death rate soared. The average life expectancy for a European in India was just 3 years. Disease played a significant role, but drink was often blamed. As fleets of ships became more regular and reliable, wealthy merchants were soon enjoying the finest imported drinks in heroic quantities, but the troops could afford little other than arak and died in droves. The need for a lighter, healthier drink soon became apparent.
Pale ale was common in England from the mid-17th century onward, after the innovation of coke smelting made it possible to consistently control the temperature of malting barley to produce pale malt. It was a premium drink, popular in country houses and upmarket establishments because, being pale, it was harder to adulterate with nasty—even fatal—adjuncts, as was the practice with more common darker beers.
There are records of pale ale being drunk in India as early as 1716, when the President of the colony at Madras, Joseph Collett, was chastised by the East India Company for a phenomenally large monthly drinks tab that included “24 dozen and a half of Burton Ale and pale Beer.”
Of course, “pale ale” covers a multitude of different possibilities. In the 17th and 18th centuries, pale ale was effectively anything that was paler than what had gone before. The 18th century saw porter become the first beer brewed in Britain on a truly industrial scale thanks to its incredible popularity, so any beer that was red through to blonde could conceivably have been regarded as pale.
Then there is the issue of strength. Through trial and error and simple accumulated brewing knowledge, any competent brewer knew that high alcohol and large concentrations of hops would help preserve beer over long periods. Country house “stock ales” or “October ales” were brewed to be matured in cellars for up to 10 years, by which time they had attained a condition comparable to wine. A 19th-century Calcutta newspaper ad for October beer suggests that it was these beers that were chosen to survive the long, arduous sea voyage from England to India, the forerunners for what eventually became known as IPA.
In the 1780s, when newspapers were published in Calcutta for the first time, they were instantly full of notices for auctions for the private cargos of ship’s captains. These auctions almost always included reference to pale ale, porter, cider, and even small beer, proving that many beer styles were capable of surviving the rigorous sea journey.
The trade in beer was clearly well established by this time, but brand names were nonexistent—they were sold generically. The first pale ale to be mentioned by name was that of Bell’s, a Burton brewery, in 1790. Other brewers were soon also mentioned, but in 1793 one name appeared that would change everything—Hodgson.
Many histories of IPA wrongly credit George Hodgson’s brewery in East London with the “invention” of IPA. He did not invent it—his brewery was not even the first to be mentioned by name in the Indian market—but he did evolve an existing beer style until it became phenomenally popular in India, almost to the exclusion of all his competitors.
Hodgson’s brewery opened in 1752, close to the East India Docks on the River Thames in London. This was at the height of porter’s popularity as a beer style in London, and Hodgson brewed it like everyone else.
But his proximity to the dock meant he came into close contact with East Indiaman captains. He would have heard from them what beer was most popular and offered the captains good trading terms. When George’s son Mark took over the brewery, he focused on India more intensively. It was typical for customers to write letters of feedback to brewers, and Mark Hodgson clearly took note of these, adapting his beer to suit the Indian climate and tastes. By 1809, Hodgson’s beer was advertised in large block capitals on the front of the Calcutta Gazette. Soon, no other pale ale was mentioned by name, and Hodgson’s was immortalized in verse and prose.
Hodgson eventually began selling his pale ale in the UK, mainly to families returning from India, and in the 1830s the term “East India Pale Ale” appeared in newspaper ads for the first time.
The beers that eventually became known as IPA are believed to have evolved from October beers, which were brewed to be matured in cellars for at least 18 months before drinking. However, when these beers were shipped without prior maturation, they often arrived in India “ripe,” fully conditioned and ready. Somehow, a 6-month sea journey had had an effect that, although not identical to long cellar maturation, was certainly similar.
The passage to India meant sailing out into the Atlantic, through the Canary Islands, and into the open sea. Currents and trade winds meant that ships generally had to sail west when they were trying to go east. After crossing the equator ships would often end up in Brazil and then sail back across the south Atlantic, round the tumultuous, notorious Cape of Good Hope, through the Madagascar channel, across the Indian Ocean, back across the Equator, and arrive in Bombay or Calcutta around 6 months after leaving London or Liverpool.
This was a truly arduous journey, involving temperature fluctuations of up to 20°C and constant movement—often violent movement. Beer therefore had to be assessed before it was auctioned on arrival in India. Rejected beer was sold off cheap, but usually the beer was found to be in perfect condition, and ads describe new shipments as being “fully ripened” and ready to drink.
Allsopp’s was once the largest brewery in Burton on Trent, having built a formidable reputation for its excellent strong, sweet Burton ales across the Baltic, particularly in St. Petersburg. When a combination of Napoleon Bonaparte and crippling Russian tariffs eventually killed off this trade, Samuel Allsopp was desperate to drum up new business.
On a visit to London, Allsopp was entertained by Campbell Marjoribanks, chairman of the East India Company, who informed him that Frederick Hodgson—grandson of George and now head of the company—had given offence to the East India Company and its ships’ captains by implementing restrictive trading terms. The Company wanted another brewer to stand against him. Thanks to Allsopp’s success in brewing ales that stood up to the rigors of the Baltic journey, they felt he might be the man.
Marjoribanks sent Allsopp samples of Hodgson’s ale, which the latter attempted to recreate. The result (allegedly brewed in a teapot) replicated the high alcohol and assertive hop character of the original, but brewed with Burton water—which is rich in gypsum and salts—it was immediately pronounced a far superior beer to Hodgson’s.
Burton-on-Trent is a small town, and brewing is a tight-knit community. Other brewers quickly caught on to what Allsopp was doing and replicated it. Bass had better links within the transport and sales infrastructure to the ports of London and Liverpool and was soon exporting more beer to India than Allsopp.
Bass became a household name, and its distinctive red triangle followed the British Empire wherever it went, becoming the world’s first globally recognized brand. Back in Britain, the Great Exhibition of 1851 finally persuaded the British that they had an Empire of which they should be proud. Neither Bass nor any other brewer was present at the Exhibition, but in the years that followed IPA became the drink of fashionable London, a “wine of malt” that was prescribed by doctors for stomach complaints and general well-being.
IPA became the drink of the British Empire not because it was the only beer that could survive rigorous sea journeys, as has often been suggested (in fact, porter was also shipped to India in very large quantities throughout the entire period of IPA’s success) but because it was refreshing, light, and tasted better than anything else when served chilled in India’s 30°C heat. By the end of the 19th century, thanks to refrigeration, innovation, and a greater understanding of the properties of yeast, lager was commonplace, could be brewed in India, and did the job of refreshment even better than IPA.
But more than that, the pressures exerted by a growing temperance movement meant that excessive drinking became increasingly frowned upon. While lager killed IPA within the beer market, beer itself was displaced in India and other colonies by tea, watery gin, and tonics or various weak blends of whiskey and soda.
For British IPA brewers, the export market disappeared. And although Britain remained one of the few countries not to be seduced by lager, the fortunes of its ales suffered at home too. Changes in the calculation of beer duty began to weigh heavily against the production of strong beers, and there was an increasing demand for weaker products thanks to the growth of white-collar jobs that required a clearer head. Although beers named “India pale ales” were still produced, by the early decades of the 20th century they were pale shadows of their former selves, weighing in at under 4% alcohol by volume (ABV) with none of the heady hoppiness that had once defined them.
Peter Ballantine, a Scottish brewer, had emigrated to the United States in 1830. A Ballantine IPA, considered pretty true to the style in that it was aggressively hopped, around 7.5% ABV, and, importantly, was aged in barrels for a year, was one of the few characterful beers to survive into the post-Prohibition age. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Ballantines was acquired and sold by various brewing groups, and the IPA was watered down by successive new owners. It has not been brewed regularly since the mid-1990s. When the American craft brewing revolution began in earnest, brewers looked to historic records for beer styles they could recreate, with beers like Ballantine IPA proving an inspiration.
American hops were discovered to have more intense flavor and aroma than their European counterparts, and traditional IPA proved to be a perfect showcase for them. Bert Grant began brewing in Yakima, Washington, in the early 1980s and believed in using local ingredients. He discovered that hops from the North West, such as Chinook and Cascade, gave a hoppy beer like IPA a striking array of resiny and citrus fruit flavors. Here was an evolution of the style that could in theory still be aged like its ancestors, but delivered bombs of flavor when young and fresh. IPA brewing spread down the west coast of America and then across the country, and IPA became a standard by which craft brewers can be compared.
The appetite for serious hoppy beers grew and led to “double IPAs” or “Imperial IPAs,” pushing the boundaries of intensity of bitterness and aroma.
Inspired by the American reinvention of IPA, many UK brewers began rediscovering the style. Some of these used American hops, which led to accusations of inauthenticity. But records show that toward the end of the 19th century hops were imported from the United States to be used in IPA because demand was so high that England could not grow enough of its own.
IPA is now the signature of craft brewers worldwide. Fittingly for an export beer, brewers from Australia to Scandinavia are creating new beers, mostly inspired by the American take on the style, but often adding a regional twist of their own.
The debate about what constitutes an “authentic” IPA will continue. If one were perfectly strict about it, one could argue that only a beer that has survived the sea journey from Europe around the Cape of Good Hope to India is a true IPA. Because it is no longer possible to do that journey along its original route (all shipping from Europe to India now goes via the Suez Canal), this proviso would be somewhat unrealistic. And in any event, IPA has always evolved. October ales evolved into Hodgson’s London version, which was then transformed when brewed in Burton. Brewing records from the mid-20th century would have argued that IPA was a light, refreshing ale of around 3.5%. Once could argue, then, that in its time this was just as authentic as a modern Imperial IPA brewed with malt and hop varieties that didn’t exist when Bass was in its prime. Versions of IPA continue to thread the world together and will continue to evolve to suit our tastes.