True History of the IPA and its Origin

Because it’s such a popular style most people know or think they know the origins of the IPA. Today we are diving into the true history and evolution of the IPA.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of beer you can check our Did the Ancient Egyptians invent Beer?

An old world map of the journey from England to India by ship.

The popular origin story of IPA

Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, England held a large colonial presence in India. Soldiers, sailors, and civilians had a huge appetite for beer. trouble was the voyage to India was long and by the time ships made it there the traditional beers have spoiled. even when they did the dark porters that were popular at the time in London, weren’t quite the ticket in the hot climate of India.

George Hodgson of a London brewery was the first person to come up with a solution to this problem. He began brewing a lighter style of beer known as Pale Ale. Hodgson realized that high alcohol and hop levels would prevent spoilage on the long journey. His process succeeded and for about 50 years he held a virtual monopoly in the Indian market.

A glass of IPA beer with some hop flowers.

The most probable story of Origin

Just like any story that gives all credit to one person. It’s never that simple. It’s certainly true that the British were experiencing problems with beer-making the journey to India. Much of the beer that arrived in India was not fit to drink and there were many accounts of beer being dumped into the sea. There was just no way to prevent the hardships a cask would experience while at sea.

When they first departed England the North Atlantic kept the beer at a perfect cellar temperature between 50 and 55 F. But that didn’t last as the ships neared the equator to pass around Africa. Where the warm seas rock the casks to a foamy froth and where is up to 80 F. Then the beer would be chilled again going around the Horn of Africa before heating up again upon arrival to the colony.

A British ship arriving in India when it was a British colony.

Through decades of trial and error, a few breweries finally found a way to mitigate some spoilage and add a lot of bacteria-killing hops. This was certainly no guarantee but it did make beer more likely to survive the journey. So much so that by 1760 all brewers were being advised that a large helping of hops was an absolute necessity. This advice about hops was being widely circulated some 25 to 30 years prior to Hodgson Pale Ale.

The reality of beer market in India

In the meantime, India was developing a great taste for the same porters and stouts that were popular in London. Although they were a bit hoppier and Hodgson’s brewery wasn’t the first hoppy Pale Ale to make it to India. It certainly was the most popular but in reality even though the beer wand hoppy pale ales became quite popular in India. It’s surprising to learn that the Indian market was never more than a blip in the world of beer at the time.

A glass of IPA beer with an American flag on it standing on a mound of dry hops.

At its height, India was only receiving 10 000 barrels a year. That was just one-sixth of the amount received by North America and just one-tenth of the largest single brewery in England which alone turned out 100 000 barrels. Based on the small export market to India, we think IPA would have ended up a footnote in brewing history.

Fortunately, a new rail line between Buron and London links the pale ale breweries with the huge London market. Soon pale ales advertised as ready for India began being advertised as a popular occasion beer. One brewery even touted IPAs as the beer of the gentry. It was a commercial hit and this is when the style was born.

The British and the American IPA

IPAs never sold that well in India but they became standard beer in the English market. As India Pale Ale has evolved the family tree has split into two distinct categories.

British IPAs are modest beer with around 5% alcohol and only moderate hopping.

American IPAS are stronger generally between 6 to 7 % alcohol and showcase intense hop aromas and flavors.

In the 19th-century IPAs didn’t change much. It wasn’t until the 20th century that world events forced a change in the style in England to save on the grain during World War One.

Three glasses of different IPA style beer.

All British beers were required to be brewed at a lower strength causing a permanent change to IPA. By the 1940s the style was about the same as a pale ale and in many breweries, the IPA was less alcoholic than their signature pale ale.

Prohibiton in America

American prohibition nearly killed all ale production and certainly killed the popularity of the IPA in the US. IPA found new life in the 1990s on the American West Coast.

Craft brewers discovered the awesome hop-growing climate and began using more hops revising the all but dead style. Soon West Coast IPAs began pushing the envelope of what hoppy beer could be. Today brewers in the northeast of the US are introducing another evolution to the style with their Northeast IPA.

These beers are characterized by their hazy color and strong fruit flavors to pair with all that hoppy goodness. The humble IPA began as an export to a colony. It circled the globe that spread from England to North America. It nearly died as a style and then became the symbol of the craft beer renaissance. All while bearing the name of a country where it was never actually brewed. Cheers.

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