History of the India Pale Ale

By Mark Bowers

The IPA as a style is nearing 200 years old and its origin is caught up in controversy.  The short and oft repeated story of its beginning is that George Hodgson and his Bow Brewery in London invented the highly hopped IPA in the mid 1700s because the typical beers sent to India to serve to the colonists frequently arrived spoiled or in bad condition due to the long travel time and hot weather; the ships transporting the beer crossed the equator twice and took up to six months to reach India.  Adding lots of hops, which are antimicrobial by nature, made his pale ale more stable and gave it a much longer shelf life. 

Despite how convincing and plausible all of that may sound, essentially all of this tale is untrue.  Porters, pale ales, brown ales, and amber ales were all shipped to India for decades without significant or untenable spoilage.  Additionally, there is no evidence that Hodgson specially formulated his pale ale with large increases in hops for the India trade.  The pale ale that he shipped to India appears to be a beer style called October ale (similar to stock or aged ales), an expensive to make, strong, and reasonably hopped beer that was typically made in the fall. It would then be aged for a year or so and sold mostly to the wealthy.   This type of beer or similar aged ales was, as it turns out, the precursor to the IPA.  

The likely origin of the IPA occurred in Burton upon Trent (in the West Midlands region of England).  One or more Burton breweries in the 1830s had reformulated their (mostly) export pale ales to be hoppier (more bitter but quite refined), drier (due to the naturally occuring minerals in Burton’s water), plus clear (long settling times) and sparkling (high carbonation levels) in order to satisfy the changing beer tastes of the newly industrialized public both at home and abroad.

This type of IPA reached its height of popularity in the 1880s, mostly in the UK and some of its colonies.  Demand for IPAs slowly faded as lower alcohol, less bitter, fresher ales became trendy in the UK and lagers invaded many other populated places on Earth.  The name IPA remained on a number of beers mostly in the UK but in general they became little more than bitters or pale ales. Their hopping rates and alcohol content dropped slowly over the years due to changing tastes, scarcity of ingredients during war times and even the rise of temperance movements.

Ballantine IPA (via taphunter.com)

This state of affairs remained until 1975 at which point the story moved to the US.  In 1965 Fritz Maytag bought the last brewery that produced steam beer (a higher temperature lager style unique to the US) in San Francisco, Anchor Brewing Company.  After shoring the brewery up and bringing it back from near collapse, Maytag wanted to add ales to its beer roster.  Maytag had developed a fondness for traditional ales and while at school in New England he greatly enjoyed Ballantine IPA, the last relatively true-to-style IPA left in the US.

In 1975 Maytag trial-brewed a couple of ales that were highly hopped (both in bitterness and hop flavor including the use of dry hopping), using Ballantine IPA as inspiration plus some techniques for brewing ales he gathered from a trip to England.  The second reformulated version that used the new American citrusy hop Cascade was released as Anchor Christmas Ale.  This beer, although not labeled as an IPA, is the first modern IPA that kicked off the craft-centric IPA we come to know and love.  In 1981 Sierra Nevada came out with Celebration Ale, another highly hopped bitter ale using several new hops, among which were the American varietals Cascade, Centennial and Chinook.  However, the first brewer to actually label a beer as an IPA was Bert Grant, who started a craft brewery in Yakima, Washington after working in the hop business.

A Year with Dr. Nandu – our take on an American IPA (frequently known as a West Coast IPA)

The highly acclaimed Celebration Ale would garner wide distribution in the US, gaining many fans, both beer drinkers and brewers, which would go on to brew nearly countless other IPAs of their own.  By the late 1990s, most craft breweries in the US were offering an IPA for sale. Soon brewers were creating all sorts of new IPAs. Plus the overall growth in IPAs in the market place has been astounding, it is now the most popular craft beer style in the US.  At first experimenting with various new hops that were beginning to appear in the market, then to brewing bigger and more bitter versions of IPA (e.g., Double IPAs or Imperial IPAs) and onto different styles like Belgian IPAs, brown IPAs and black IPAs.  After that brewers experimented with adding other ingredients (especially fruit) to complement or enhance the citrusy, tropical, and other fruity flavors that were appearing in newly released hops. Once beer drinkers became tired of the bitterness wars, a few brewers started concentrating on the hop’s fruity flavors, decreasing bitterness and emphasizing a soft mouthfeel.  And this was the start of the New England IPA. (Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on the NEIPA.) 

Mark Bowers is the Brewmaster at Aeronaut. The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original author, and they do not necessarily represent those of Aeronaut Brewing Co.

Illustrations courtesy of Brit Weidel