The history of the IPA style of beer

This is a story of commercial treachery, imperialism and an arduous journey that would cross the equator twice.

No other beer has had such an impact on the craft beer industry as IPA’s have. It seems you can’t be called a true craft brewery without having at least one IPA on your tap list with most having more. The big bold flavours and in-your-face bitterness are what brings people back for more every time. Tropical, citrus, pine, and even gunja are just some of the aroma and flavours you’ll find in this “pet” of the craft beer industry. Without doubt IPA’s have been a driving force behind the boom in craft beer over the last twenty or so years, but like most popular beers of today IPA’s have their roots solidly set in history and the style is far from new or revolutionary. So with that said, lets delve into some IPA history without getting too caught up in the myth busting that has plagued this style recently.

Jumping into the Alechemist “DeLorean” essentially just a 1979 TD Holden Gemini covered in home brand Alfoil with a digitally controlled mash tun in the back seat. I’m going to set the Brew-Flux Capacitor (the mash tun) for the early 18th century or 66.4 degrees Celsius, and our destination? The mother country “England.”

IPA’s much like the Alechemist are around 170 years old, the Pale in ‘India Pale Ale’ is much older. Although not pale as we know them today they were somewhat less roasty than the popular Porter style of the day. They were usually called Bitter’s to differentiate them from other beers. By the mid-18th century most breweries were using malt that was kilned using coke, this new process produced less smoke and was easier to control the heat, producing a much lighter malt and a true Pale beer.

East India CompanyIn 1757 the battle of Plassey was won, with this started the British rule in the Indian sub-continent and by the 19th century most of India was under British rule. The East India Company had originally been set up for trade with…… well the East indies although they mainly traded with China. The trade mostly consisted of commodity’s such as Tea, Coffee, Silk, Cotton and above all “Opium”, yep Opium! The East India Company probably still holds the record for being the biggest drug mules in history. With this new lucrative market in British India the company set their focus on the fact the British in India wanted beer and the British breweries had beer to freight. The first brewer in London to send beer to India was George Hodgson of Hodgson’s Brewery in Bow. The brewery itself was close to the East India Company’s port and so became the beer of choice to send to the thirsty Brit’s away from home.

The beer being sent by Hodgson was an October beer or old beer but dubbed India Pale Ale for the new market, it typically aged in oak barrels for a number of years. When it arrived in India it was met with great approval and became instantly popular. By 1811 Hodgson’s were sending around 4000 barrels a year to India. Soon George’s son Frederick and a dapper young chap called Thomas Drane were running the now moved and new brewery at Bow Bridge. The two businessmen thought it time for a coup! They quickly set about cutting Ties with the East India Company and started to ship their beer to India themselves, then retailing it themselves once it arrived, taking 100 percent of the profits. At the same time, they ended the long standing agreement of giving 12 or 18 months credit on beer they sold to the company’s employees, raised prices by 20 percent and refused to sell on any terms other than cash. No prizes for guessing the EIC and the merchants in Calcutta and Madras were not happy with this arrangement. Hodgson’s beer had formed one of their primary articles of investment. From then on, whenever the EIC tried to import someone else’s beer they were undercut by Hodgson and Drane so severely it scared anyone away from the market.

Fast forward to 1806 and some short French bloke has created what came to be known as the Continental Blockade. This stopped around 60 to 70 percent of all trade between mainland Europe and Russia and brings the brewing industry in Britain to its knees where it all but collapses.

While this is happening small brewery in Burton/Trent owned by the brewer Ben Wilson, was struggling with the blockade and ended up selling out to a chap called Samuel Allsopp for 7000 pounds. Hearing of the takeover the East India Company invites Allsopp to a dinner to discuss a trade agreement, legend has it the EIC offered to beat any trade agreement they had in Europe and Russia. They also wanted a new pale beer, one that could rival the success of Hodgson’s October style Pale Ale. Allsopp signed on the dotted line knowing nothing of the beer legend he was about to be involved in. The beer created was Pale in colour and more hop driven than other beers of its time. It’s about here where some of the history of IPA’s becomes hotly contested, was the beer brewed strong and hoppy to stop spoilage on the long sea voyage or was it brewed to strengths similar to the porters of the day? Brewing records suggest that to begin with at least, it was no more alcoholic than porter and the simple fact is, porter was being shipped as far away as Australia without any detriment to the product.

So how about the hops? Was the intention of the brewer to add a ship load of hops to create an antibacterial property to the beer? Brewing records are sketchy at best from this period and I guess we’ll never know, but I’m sure the flavours and big bitter hit we crave today was appreciated just as much back then. Just how different the two beers were is also a hotly contested issue.
This new beer continued with Hodgson’s India Pale Ale style name and was an instant hit among the Brits in India and at home. Hodgson and Drane fobbed off this new beer and alliance and were supremely confident in their product and that they were just a small time competitor, but what they hadn’t accounted for was “mother nature”.

The water in Burton/Trent was high in calcium sulphate, it wasn’t known at the time but this was perfect for naturally increasing flavour and bitterness in beer and was far superior than the water in stinky old London. It wasn’t long before Allsopp knew he had the better product and it would be years before water chemistry would allow other breweries to “Burtonize’ their water. Two other Burton breweries “Bass and Salt” were both keen to cash in on this new beer and their magic water and so the three breweries set about chipping away at Hodgson and Drane’s market dominance. The once great Hodgson brewery slowly fell into obscurity and in 1933 the mighty brewery was demolished to make way for council buildings.

Well there you have it my beer brethren, a story of commercial treachery, imperialism and an arduous journey that would cross the equator twice.

The AlechemistSo what about the current styles of IPA. Well perhaps that is a story for another time but you can find out more about the current style of IPA’s by reading through the style guidelines from BJCP   or  the American Brewers Association

If you are interested in brewing your own IPA, you can also check out own of the Alechemist’s recipes

Stay tuned for more beer history and education

Drink up and brew strong!
Cheers (Swannie) The Alechemist