The IPA Adventure – The History of the IPA Beer
by Emmanuel Bates
Imagine this, you and a few friends decide to go out one night. You get to the bar, and ask the bartender, “Excuse me, what IPAs do you have available?” Now, imagine a perplexed look from the bartender because they never heard of such a thing. IPAs are currently one of the highest trending beer styles in the United States. They are actually the leading style in all craft beer and make up around 6% of the total beer market. The crazy thing about it is: the IPA only started getting traction in the US in the 1990s! Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, IPAs were deemed “undrinkable” by beer consumers, and lagers were typically their beer of choice. How did a style of beer go from being considered undrinkable to the leading craft beer style in the United States? The answer is time and evolution.
IPA stands for India Pale Ale. However, the name is a misnomer because the style did not originate in India. This is due to India’s scorching hot climate. So, let’s dive into more history on the matter… In 1757, shortly after the Battle of Plassey, Britain looked at ways to have casks of beer shipped to British soldiers in India. However, there was a problem: How to ship them? Shipping beer across the globe would mean that the barrels would have to survive a six-month journey by sea from Britain to India without the beer spoiling. In the beginning of the voyage, the average cellar temperature that the barrels were stored was around 50- to 55-degrees Fahrenheit. The barrels were perfectly fine until the ships got close to the equator and had to go around Africa where the temperature drastically increased.
Some of you may know the story of George Hodgson, the owner of Bow Brewery, who became famous for their strong, hop-heavy October ale. Bow Brewery was the first to ship beer to India. Up until that point, Porters and Stouts were the styles of choice in India. So, Hodgson had a significant advantage in distributing the beer to India due to a lack in style choices. The brewery was a short distance to East India Companies ports, which led to Hodgson’s virtual monopoly on the India beer market. When George Hodgson’s son, Mark, took over, they significantly expanded production by sending around 4,000 barrels a year to India. Shortly after, Mark had the idea to cut out the East India Companies and distribute themselves. Now, if you’re still with me, this is where the story gets interesting.
When Mark and his business partner cut out East India Companies, as you can expect, they were furious about losing one of their most profitable investments. In 1806, the Napoleonic blockade had blocked trade from England to Europe and Russia, which caused trade exports to fall by around 50%. This crippled the beer industry.
Ben Wilson, the lead brewer in the English town of Burton-on-Trent, struggled to keep afloat during this time and was forced to sell his brewery to a man named, Samuel Allsopp, for around 7000 pounds. Soon after, East India Companies got word of the deal and arranged a meeting with Allsopp, which led to a new partnership between the two entities. The plan was to produce a new robust, heavily-hopped pale ale and distribute the brew to India.
Hodgson got word of this deal and didn’t think much of it – thinking that nobody could compete with him in the Indian market. However, there was one significant geographical advantage in which Hodgson could not account for: the well water in Burton-On-Trent was rich in calcium sulfate, which gave the beer a natural bitterness and better flavoring. At the time, London breweries could not replicate this. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century in which they successfully reproduced it. Brewers have now coined the term, “Burtonized water.”
In 1823, Allsopp’s Burton India Pale Ale arrived in India and was an instant hit among beer drinkers. The calcium sulfate addition didn’t stay a secret for too long, as other breweries like Bass began making their versions of the India Pale Ale. This steadily cut into the market shares of Bow Brewery, and by 1933, Bow Brewery went out of business.
So, if IPAs were this popular then, how come the style of beer was almost lost? In the late 19th century, Britain exported beer to the United States as immigrants came over from Europe. However, just as in the early 18th and 19th century, lagers were the beer of choice. Even worse, the early 20th century marked the prohibition era, which crippled the beer industry and made the IPA virtually lost in the void. It wasn’t until the late 20th century where the craft beer revolution began! Beer drinkers looked for the next best beer, and brewers sought out how to stand out from each other. It’s debated which brewery was the first to bring the IPA back in style. Due to the combination of prohibition and immigrants’ distaste for the form, the IPA beer style was almost non-existent. Still, it quickly became a staple in the craft beer revolution in the 1990s. The American IPA was born and came with several differences from its English counterpart.
The English IPA is a golden or amber color, with balanced hops, usually a bready- or toffee-like flavor with occasional fruity esters. The English IPA is a more traditional style than the American version and is the closest thing you can get to the original – other than jumping into a time machine and going back to Allsopp’s days. Bass IPA, Goose Island IPA, and Brooklyn Brewery East India IPA are examples.
In America, we love our hops! American IPAs have more aggressive, pungent hop aromas with typically a higher alcohol content and more robust flavor. Americans love hops so much; we have different IPA variations, such as New England IPA, West Coast IPA, Milkshake IPA, and many others. Bell’s Two Hearted, Green Flash West Coast IPA, Old Nation M-43 are examples. Currently, the Bell’s Two Hearted Ale is voted the best IPA in America.
Next time you’re at your local bar or in your favorite craft beer store, go purchase an IPA and make sure not to take it for granted; there once was a time that it was almost lost forever!