Saturday, February 28, 2009

Origins: India Pale Ale

Every beer has a story to tell. Every style has an origin, whether it is invented one night by a creative commercial brewer or developed over centuries by a brewing culture. Some origins are simple and direct, and others are complex amalgams of time, society, environment, worldwide economies and even international politics.

Take the India pale ale, or IPA, for example. Americans have rabidly embraced this style and have quickly made it their own, especially with the rise of very distinct American hop varietals. But the story of where it originated is sometimes blurry, and contains historical facts mixed with a fair amount of carried-forward misinformation.

The “traditional” history of the IPA relates that it was an ale brewed by the English to a greater strength and more strongly hopped so that it would survive the journey by sea to occupied India in the nineteenth century without spoiling. At that time, transit by ship took months and the additional hops acted as a natural preservative, keeping the beer fresh until delivery.

However, this origin tale is simply not true. Granted, it does contain some truths, enough to keep this version alive and propagating. Hops do act as a mild preservative, and the British did ship beer to occupied India on a trip that took months at sea. But other beers—namely, porters—often made the same trip without harm or spoilage, so it is unlikely that English brewers would use hop additions to solve a problem they simply did not face.

To uncover the IPA’s true origin, examine the brewers who first produced this style of beer. The IPA is tied to the origin of the pale ale, connected as that is to the particular water chemistry of Burton-on-Trent. A very high natural concentration of sulfates in the water produces a beer of not only exceptional clarity but also one of enhanced bitterness. The sulfates in the water also allows the beer to hold a greater hop load than typical brown ales without adversely affecting the flavor.

The first so-called IPA was the “October beer” brewed by George Hodgson at the Bow Brewery in the late eighteenth century. It was only of marginally higher gravity and only slightly more hoppy than the popular bitters at the time, but Hodgson had the fortune of good business relations with the East India Company, the long-serving trading body with India and China.

Due to Hodgson’s favorable location, business terms and lines of credit, the East India Company became a major customer for his beers—especially the October beer, which handled the journey to India very well. The months-long journey by sea aged Hodgson’s beers an equivalent of two years in a cellar, so they arrived at their destinations very well-attenuated and in prime condition for consumption.

At about this same time, many English brewers were suffering as they lost their Northern European and Russian markets due to new and increasing international tariffs on beer. To replace these lost markets, many took advantage of Hodgson’s popular new style and began producing IPA versions of their own for export. Demand for this export product expanded, and by 1840 the India pale ale was a popular style among British consumers.

These early IPAs would hardly be noticed by modern craft beer consumers, as their “hoppy” nature was only in contrast to the popular porters and brown ales of that day. However, brewers and horticulturists continued to experiment with the hop plant and have expanded the style almost continuously since that time.

Today’s varieties can be highly localized and regional, as American hops have been developed with distinct flavors that separate them from Old World species. Brewers and consumers continue to embrace an almost infinite spectrum of IPA substyles and specialties, as it remains one of the most popular American beers.

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