Chris Hall opens our series of IPA reviews with a good look into the throbbing heart of the beer style.
Simply, India Pale Ale was a beer style created for export to India to be enjoyed by British colonists and soldiers. The legend goes that the beer was made strong and loaded with hops so that it would survive the arduous voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to India. This is something that has been questioned repeatedly, but one thing we know is this: the beer that arrived in India was unlike any that had been made before and it changed the brewing industry forever. The way we judge IPAs today is thus: they should be above average in both hop bitterness and alcohol content.
People like to pick at the legend of IPA and find all the glaring faults and historical inaccuracies, but in my opinion, the fact that this beer even has a legend is something worth celebrating. You can’t say that Foster’s or Carling have a legend, can you? This is a beer style so beloved by connoisseurs and beer enthusiasts all over the world that they will happily argue at length about it.
So how did it all come about? Well, India Pale Ale has its roots in two places, London and Burton-on-Trent. London was where the first prototypes of IPA were developed and shipped to the farthest reaches of the Empire, but the basis for IPA was crafted first in the historic home of British brewing, Burton.
Before India Pale Ale, naturally, was regular Pale Ale. For this, we have to thank Sir Henry Platt. In 1603, he pioneered the charring of coal to create coke. Coke was a superior fuel to coal in two important ways: it did not produce nasty noxious gases, and coke fires could be controlled far more easily. In the brewing world, this meant that malted barley could be heated to finer degrees, resulting in light, brighter and paler beers.
Beer was being exported to India from the moment the British first arrived, but in terms of quantities it fell way behind the likes of the claret, madeira and brandy enjoyed by the upper-class officers. Meanwhile, common soldiers posted in the sweltering climate were turning to the local liquor arak to keep away diseases. It was known at the time that water could carry disease, and that fermented alcohol was cleaner and safer, but there was also a perception that alcohol actively removed infection and illness, so booze of all kinds was being swilled by the barrel by colonists and soldiers alike. This meant the poor blighters drinking arak were either dying from alcohol poisoning or suffering from nasty cases of blindness.
Due to the demand for something non-deadly to drink (plus a number of factors, including the rising competition between Burton brewers and their London counterparts), after 1716 more and more pale ale was being shipped to India, which was seen was the safer, cleaner choice to drinking bottles of brandy at lunch. London brewers such as George Hodgson brewed the prototype IPAs, and off the back of their success in India, made their fortunes. It is clear to modern brewers now that it was the journey, not just the ingredients, which made IPA what it was. The lengthy period of maturation (at least three months) refined the beer into something quite beyond regular pale ale. They called it ‘a wine of malt’: something with enormous flavour that was light, bright and massively refreshing. It became IPA.
Thus, a legend was born. As distribution hit record highs, IPA became world-famous as the pinnacle of English brewing, and over time attracted envious attention. Brewers from all over Europe visited the breweries of Burton to better understand their mastery of pale beers. One Danish visitor, Carl Jacobsen, studied at Evershed brewery for several months and went back to Denmark to try his hand at brewing for himself. He went on to develop one of the definitive lager yeasts, and gave his name to his own beer: ‘Carlsberg’. The sad truth is that IPA was so inspirational to generations of 19th century brewers that it ultimately brought about its own downfall. Lager began to replace it both at home and abroad as the lighter beer for refreshment in warm climates, and thus it began its long fall into obscurity.
We have the American craft brewing scene to thank for IPA’s resurgence. After the prohibition era, large corporations held the monopoly producing light tasting lagers, and innovative would-be brewers began to seek more flavoursome alternatives. In doing so they revived several English beer styles, and among them was India Pale Ale. Hop varieties grown in the USA are famous for their citrusy, piney flavours, and as an ingredient they lent themselves perfectly to IPA’s rich, bittersweet flavours. In the past decade, British brewers staged their own beer revolution, and now every county in the UK contains dozens of passionate microbrewers, almost all of whom brew the beer seen as British brewing’s benchmark.
This week’s issue Rum and Reviews features reviews of a plethora of British IPAs, from bold, ballsy innovations to traditionally recreated relics. Hopefully these reviews will give you an idea of what to expect from this ever-popular beer style.
For further reading, please seek out Pete Brown’s Hops and Glory, the source of most of the information in this article. It is seen by many as the seminal text on IPA history (and a fantastic read to boot). For more information about styles, definitions and more beers to try, seek out Zak Avery’s 500 Beers and the Beer Companion by the late, great Michael Jackson (no, not that one).