The Truth about IPA

More Than You Need to Know About IPA (India Pale Ale)

I have long been a fan of IPA. Back in the day when most people had never heard of craft beer, it was my favorite style of ale. Now, it seems that everyone loves IPA. On one level, I'm very grateful for that fact. It means my chances of finding IPA on tap at the local watering hole has greatly increased. On the other hand, I'm amazed that so many people like IPA. It is an aggressive style—much too bitter for timid beer drinkers and much too strong for amateurs.

There was a time when people thought you were a beer geek because you knew that IPA was an acronym for India Pale Ale. Nowadays, it seems that everyone knows that much. In fact, almost everyone knows that it was originally a colonial beer formulated to handle the voyage from England to India. The higher hop and alcohol content helped to preserve it for the 6 months the beer would spend at sea before reaching the lips of thirsty, homesick British colonialists.

If that's all you know about IPA, then I suppose you deserve a smiley face on your report; however, if you want to consider yourself a real beer geek you need to know more.

A common misconception is that IPA was a style of beer invented specifically and intentionally for the voyage to India because the troops in Calcutta were homesick and thirsty. Let's dispel that myth.

Plenty of beer was making it from England to India back in the late 1700s. In London, Porter was especially popular. Unlike today's porter, it was strong—about 7.5 percent alcohol. Porters traveled especially well. There is historical evidence that porter successfully reached India prior to the introduction of IPA. As I said, the lads were homesick and thirsty. Porter tasted like home.

Still, IPA is not porter.

An important name in the chronicles of IPA is George Hodgson—often cited as the inventor of IPA. In the late 18th and early 19th century, George worked for the Bow Brewery, on the river Lea just east of London. There is no historical record of George Hodgson actually planning to create what we now consider IPA. There is no historical record that he had much interest at all in trying to corner the Indian beer market. It just happened.

George Hodgson got lucky on two accounts.

First, the Bow Brewery was the closest brewery to the headquarters of the East Indianmen—the merchant ships that went back and forth between England and India. When the ships' captains went looking for a brewery, they didn't have to look far to find the Bow Brewery and George Hodgson.

Second, the voyage had a fortunate affect on a particular batch of beer. George brewed up a batch of October-brewed stock bitter ale, which made it onto a ship headed for India. Perhaps it was the first non-porter to make the voyage, though there is no record of that. On the voyage to India—via the frequently turbulent waters off the Cape of Good Hope—Hodgson's October stock ale underwent the sort of maturity in cask that would have taken up to two years in a cellar.

It was not a secret recipe. October stock ale was brewed specifically to age for a long period—up to two years. It featured a lot of malt (making it strong) and many hops (making it bitter). It was a rather common style back in those days.

Because of the conditions encountered during the voyage, Hodgson's beer arrived in India in prime condition. There is no evidence that he planned this or that he had any idea that it would happen. He was just lucky.

By all accounts, it was very good beer. George was no dummy and quickly branded the beer, "Hodgson's India Ale." Why did the lads in India like it better than porter? Who knows? Eventually the style --or a less-travelled version of the same style-- became popular back in London, too.

At one point, Hodgson controlled, perhaps, as much as 50% of the market in India. This is largely because of his proximity to the East Indiamen headquarters and his willingness to extend credit to the ships' captains.

Other brewers knew what he'd done and followed suit. They all knew that strong ale with high hop content would travel well. They all knew how to make October brewed stock bitter ale. Now, they all knew the secret. Put it aboard a ship and send it out to sea.

Today's IPA has little in common with Hodgson's India Ale. IPA is pale ale made with higher hop content and higher alcohol content.

As a beer geek, you likely know that within the style IPA, there are huge variations. Some IPAs are stronger than others are. Some are bitterer than others are. Some have a floral nose. Some do not. IPA is either copper colored, pale blond, or golden.

Congratulations, it is now very, very likely that you know way more about IPA than any bozo sitting on a bar stool.