One of the many wonderful things about craft beer is its ability to reinvent. With almost unlimited ingredients, beer has an almost unlimited ability to change. IPA enthusiasts aka massive legends will know the curious combination of simplicity and complexity that makes an IPA an IPA.
The shortest way to describe an IPA is one word: hops (helpfully covered in our previous edition of this alphabet of brewing). Over time the IPA has evolved into the most aggressively hopped beer style of them all. If you like bitter, floral, earthy, citrusy, piney, fruity, and, yes once more, bitter flavor notes, you'll like an IPA.
The initials IPA stand for India pale ale and its origins are... problematic. According to legend, It was the ‘answer’ to the ‘problem’ of providing beer for the British Empire in the east when taking other people’s countries was absolutely fine and there was no way anyone could say otherwise else i’ll swat you out of the way with my blue passport and sing about it at the Last Night of the Proms. Colonialism aside, temperature is a very important part of the brew process. It was too hot to brew in India, so what was needed was a beer that could survive the gruelling six-month journey from Britain intact. Or so the story goes.
According to legend, 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; over time the beer gradually became paler and more refreshing to suit the Indian climate. An accidental style of hopping - and fermentation over time - was born.
However a deeper dive leads us to more complex and sometimes conflicting conclusions, delightfully. Martyn Connell in his excellent blog (here) gives us some salient points.
We have evidence that pale ale was being made at least as early as 1675, brewed under that name by 1705 and that pale ale was being sold in London by 1709 at the latest.
We have evidence that ale and beer were being exported, apparently successfully, to India as early as 1711.
We know that by the 1760s brewers were being advised that it was “absolutely necessary” to add extra hops to beer if it was being sent to warmer climes. There is no evidence linking this advice, to hop export beer more heavily, to any specific brewer.
We know that pale ale, along with porter, brewer unnamed, was being exported to India from at least 1784.-
We know that pale ale and porter brewed by Hodgson of Bow was being exported to India from at least 1793.
So this Hodgson legend is more legend than fact, probably. Hodgson’s involvement in the India trade seems to be based on two lucky chances. The first was that the docks for the merchant ships that went to and from India, the East Indiamen, were at Blackwall on the Thames, just a short distance via the River Lea from his brewery. The second lucky chance was that on the four-month voyage out to India via the Cape of Good Hope Hodgson’s October stock ale underwent the sort of maturity in cask that would have taken two years in a cellar, and arrived in the East in prime condition. There is no evidence Hodgson planned this from the start or knew it would happen: he was just lucky. But one thing we do know is that change was not far off, whatever the beginnings of this process.
With the coming of refrigeration, proper IPA itself began to die out. Until that is the Americans rediscovered their love of brewing some time around 1976. The craft brewers in the States merrily set about recreating forgotten British styles – including IPA. Being American, they didn’t do things by halves. These new ales were packed with alcohol and hops. Excitable brewers started to push America’s new hops as far as they would go. Instead of grassy, earthy and lemony IPAs we suddenly had piney, grapefruity, mega IPAs too. A brave new world was born, along with the terms “hophead” and “lupulin threshold”. What a time to be alive.
From America, IPA returned home across the Atlantic. We gave them the Beatles, they gave us our own improved beer styles back. It’s been a funny old journey: a beer that was invented in Britain for the Indian market (matybe), was revived by Americans and then copied by brewers in Britain. And the best part of it all - we can crack open a beer and still listen to the beatles if we want.
Since the first American IPA was brewed 30 years ago, brewers all over the world have taken on those ideas, flavours and ingredients and done something new with them. This has resulted in countless sub-styles of IPA all radically different and none of them as good as ours, Stowaway, which is cheap at twice the price.
A simple beer at the end of a long complicated journey.