The History of the IPA

Posted · Add Comment

In the last ten years IPA has come to dominate the craft beer market. This hoppy style of beer is now strongly associated with the US brewing scene. However, the history of India pale ale goes back to eighteenth-century Britain.

Hops are the main flavour of IPA

What is a Pale Ale?

The term pale ale was first used in the early eighteenth century and refers to a top-fermented beer made with a pale malt. The terms ‘pale ale’ and ‘bitter’ were at one time synonymous, used to distinguish noticeably hopped beers from milds and porters. In the twentieth century, it became conventional for brewers to identify bottled beers as pale ales and cask beers as bitters.

The Indian Connection

During the height of the British Empire Britons were living all over the world, with India being Britain’s largest colony. The hot Indian climate was unsuitable for brewing, so beer needed to be exported from Britain. Beer did not keep well on the long six-month voyage to India, but by the 1760s books on brewing were advising that using double the quantity of hops could help to preserve the beer.

In the late 1700s George Hodgson, a London brewer, used his connections to the East India Company to dominate the export market to India, with his products including a strong pale ale. Although some sources claim Hodgson as the ‘inventor’ of IPA, there is little evidence that his beer was significantly different from existing pale ales, or that he was the first to come up with the idea of hopping beer for hot climates. However, ‘Hodgson’ was the most popular of the pale ales exported, described in 1829 as “by far the best and most sought after in India”. Later in the century Hodgson lost ground in the Indian market as other brewers in London and the Midlands saw the opportunities of exporting to the subcontinent. Burton brewers such as Bass and Allsopp became especially popular as the Burton water was seen as contributing to a better-tasting beer.

A Worldwide Phenomenon

The phrase “Pale Ale prepared for the East and West India Climate” was being used by brewers as early as 1819, and on sale in London under this description a few years later. The new style of beer gained worldwide popularity. The earliest known use of the phrase ‘India Pale Ale’ is from an Australian newspaper advertisement in 1829, and IPA was also exported to the United States. The connection between the name and a highly-hopped beer was firmly established, and Australian, American and Canadian breweries were making beers labelled as IPAs by 1900.

In the later 19th century, the popularity of IPA declined. In both Britain and America, continental-style lagers became more fashionable than British-style ales, particularly with the advent of refrigeration. In the US, the era of Prohibition was the death-knell for home brewing.

The American Revival of IPA

Hopped beers became almost unheard of in the US. The large breweries all leaned towards pale lagers and light ales. However, as microbreweries began to spring up across the country in the 1970s, old-fashioned styles of beer became to appear. Two California breweries, New Albion Brewing in Sonoma and San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery, were notable examples. Anchor’s Liberty Ale, which appeared in 1975, is usually seen as the first modern American IPA.

IPAs grew in popularity into the 1980s and into the ‘90s, with nearly every US brewery producing their own. In part, the enthusiasm can be explained by the fact that hops grow well in much of the US, although the Pacific Northwest grows a greater variety of hops than anywhere else. It was also an opportunity for a country which had lost its brewing traditions to create a distinct beer personality for itself.

IPA today

Today IPA is the most popular type of craft beer

Today IPAs dominate the American craft beer scene, and a vocabulary has developed to describe the different styles. America’s enthusiasm for the hop led to hoppier and hoppier beers. In these double and imperial IPAs, the higher hop concentration is balanced with more malt, usually resulting in a higher ABV. A lower alcohol beer is referred to as a session IPA.

In terms of style, the big division is between the West Coast IPA and the New England IPA. West Coast IPA is characterised by being aggressively hopped to achieve big, bitter flavours. New England IPAs, on the other hand, are hazy and use their hops primarily for their aroma, leading to a fruity flavour that is seen as more accessible to a wider audience of drinkers.

After having been adopted by America, IPA returned home to Britain. Both imported American IPAs and new IPAs from British breweries have been enthusiastically embraced. Perhaps the most celebrated American-style IPA brewed in the UK is Jaipur by Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire. After falling out of favour for a century, IPA has decidedly recovered its position as a British favourite. The UK’s best-selling craft beer in 2018 was BrewDog Punk IPA.