A legion of stories, tall tales and legends surround the most popular craft beer style of all: the IPA beer.
Which ones are real? What’s fiction? And which are mere exaggeration?
Come along as we uncover the true origins of the IPA and if the beer that exploded in the early 2000s is indeed as novel as it may seem. Or it might even be older than the commercial lagers dominating the market for over a year?
The answer is: yes and no. To learn the truth, we first need to embark on a voyage across the sea.
The great traveler
Let’s begin with an anecdote that defined the history of IPAs so much, it may never be erased from the dirty blackboard of the internet.
The story goes like: IPA beer was developed by a London brewer named George Hodson who faced a difficult problem in the 1780s: beers of the period were unable to make the six-month-long trip from England to the British Empire’s Indian colonies without going bad.
The solution was a beer full of hops and with higher alcohol content. A light ale that can be aged like fine wine. This beer became Hodgson’s October Ale that became known as India Pale Ale due to its main export destination.
The sole problem with this story is: it simply isn’t true.
First of all, 18th century beers were far from what we have today. Instead of light lagers they served heavy and powerfully alcoholic ales and porters that – contradicting the stories – could easily withstand half a year of travel. And Pale Ale type beers had already been imported to the Indian peninsula since the mid-1700s.
So then who invented IPAs?
It’s unknown. (sorry)
As beer historical records were severely thin back then, IPA (just like the porter and most popular beer styles of the time) was born in the tubs of unnamed brewers.
The most well-known IPA beer in the Far East however was undoubtedly produced by Hodgson’s Bow Brewery. And although they must have been full of hops as the legend says, the exact recipe is long lost today. The only thing for certain is that taking a sip from Hodgson’s October Ale today, you wouldn’t call it an IPA.
They didn’t either as a matter of fact. The name India Pale Ale wasn’t used until a century later. In 1835 British newspaper The Liverpool Mercury is said to be the one who invented the name and it only caught on several decades later.
Seems like well-hopped Pale Ales and more specifically the India-imported types have an even longer and more enigmatic history than thought.
Its history is only one side of the IPA mythology however. To truly grasp why this Indian import became the go-to craft beer of everyday consumers today, we need to take you to another trip in time…
The great time-traveller
IPA had its first golden age during the tail end of the 1800s, when the beer that was still centuries away from being called a craft arrived on the shores of the US. Only for the prohibition to cut its reign short as mentioned in our first beer history article. The emergence of mass-produced beer only amplified the effects of the prohibition and the term IPA fast became a meaningless acronym.
Then the hippies came and transformed everything.
The long-lost recipe was rediscovered in the 70s by a few daring American brewers who started experimenting with it. At first, they only changed some of the proportions, adding a little more hops to the kettle. The outcome was a clear success.
Then eventually new modifications came: higher alcohol volume, lower alcohol volume, fermentation… But the Walter Whites of beer brewing were still not satisfied with the results so eventually new ingredients landed in the mix. Stuff that was virtually unimaginable by the forefathers.
And that’s how we arrived in the age when if there aren’t at least four different types of IPAs on tap at Élesztőház something must be seriously off.
IPA is by far the most popular craft beer style available and this is mostly due-to the fact that it’s almost impossible to label.
Is it bitter? Often, but then there are Milkshake IPAs and the fruity ones of course…
Does it have high alcohol content? Double IPAs are seriously powerful but a NEIPA is a particularly light beer for example…
We can’t even declare that India Pale Ales would truly be “pale”. There happen to be several dark variations as well.
Is there anything that can universally be said about this beer then?
Maybe that everyone has a favorite type of IPA… ours are always the ones that are on tap at Élesztő!
Sources of the photos: