History of India Pale Ale

What exactly is an India Pale Ale, also known as the legendary IPA style brew. The reason it exists is simple: survival of the fittest.

Imagine this… you’ve discovered a new regions across the ocean in a world that used to be considered flat. Three hundred years after such discoveries we were challenged to find a way to keep a beer from spoiling after long voyages across the open seas to warm climates of the southern atmospheres.

What do you do? You drink beer faster before it spoils and fall off course with a drunken crew of sailors? Or, do you find a way to keep your beer stable and free from spoiling on long journeys. A bit of both I presume.

This is the reason IPA was born, to preserver the wild oceanic rides into the open blue seas.

“Before refrigeration and pasteurization, the brewer’s only weapons against spoilage were alcohol and hops. Alcohol and hops provide an unfriendly environment for microbes, preventing the growth of the bacteria that cause sourness. Therefore high alcohol content and high hopping rates could protect beer from the souring associated with long storage times.” (wikipedia)

Fill your beer with hops that withstand the test of time packed with some nice alcohol and you’ve got your best protection from spoilage. The trip from London to Bombay India was once done by boat…slowly and your civilians and military personal at the destination point demanded beer from their home country. There would be great money if you could fill their demands and standard style beers just weren’t cutting it. What you didn’t want was a flat, musty sour beer and brew masters had figured out the key of IPA.

George Hodson at Bow Brewery in East London is credited with the first recipe for India Pale Ale.

“Hodgson took his pale ale recipe, increased the hop content considerably, and raised the alcohol content. The result was a very bitter, alcoholic, and sparkling pale ale that could survive the challenges of travel and shelf life in India. IPA reached India in an enjoyable condition and Hodgson’s success became legendary. Hodgson began shipping Hodgson’s India Ale during the 1780s. By 1784 advertisements were appearing in the Calcutta Gazette for “light and excellent” pale ale.” (wikipedia)

Now, that’s a real man of genius if I ever saw one! Following this discovery brewers invented another pale ale that would survive the trip to Russia and it was known as Imperial Pale Ale. Since then, the two styles have become one in the same, both containing more hops and more alcohol to survive long trips.

This was a huge step in beer history, “in 1750, about 1480 barrels left England for India—in 1800, 9000 barrels were exported, an increase of over 500% in annual shipments.” Bass Ale soon copied Hodgson’s recipe to make their own brew along with many other competing breweries.

Many years have passed and British India Pale Ales are not really using the same recipe they once did because the distance from country to country isn’t the same with modern technology. Buying an IPA while in London seems a bit reverse of the original concept because it was designed for export. The drink doesn’t have the same traveling to do and thus it has less time to ferment and grow to its true recipe. Thus, many IPA’s have less hops and alcohol as their forefathers did to compensate for the shorter distances of travel.

More irony? India doesn’t produce any India Pale Ales. India tends to make stronger Lagers with an 8% alcohol by volume, nothing like a standard IPA in its content and creation.

Next time you order up an IPA take a second to think about how it came to be, the need for people in far off shores to have a tasty beverage like their counterparts in London. Cheers!


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    August 21, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Last year I traveled to India. While there i searched for the ultimate IPA. Kinda like a surfer seeking the ultimate wave.
    No one I spoke to ever heard of IPA. Not markets where they sold beer, five star restaurants, guides, bus drivers, Sherpas, locals, waiters. No one.

    I just moved to NJ in an area populated by people from India. The beer/wine store in town is run by Indians. When i ask ed for IPA they thought I was goofing on them.

    While I am convinced this is a microbrewery hoax I will still drink it.

    • Reply
      Derrick Schommer
      August 21, 2009 at 8:08 pm

      Well, unless you’re traveling to India or talking to those from India during the 1700’s, you’re probably going to have a tough time 🙂 We’re talking about a product that was something you’d see in India in times before refrigeration when people were still considering the world as flat. Things have changed quite a lot since then and memories fade.

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    August 22, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    Was production of IPA suspended and if so so when was the recipe resurrected?

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    Derrick Schommer
    August 22, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    I’d not say suspended, I don’t see anything in history that states it ever became a dead style. It just outlived its usefulness.

    My friends and I love a good IPA, it still holds its value. However, if you do some digging through some historical text you’ll come to find its alcohol content has been lowered from what they used to use while traveling across the sea on ships. Once refrigeration and other “high tech” systems came to be, there was no need to preserve it with higher alcohol content.

    I’m sure it was much more abrasive and disgusting compared to what we drink today. What used to be a means of hydration and keeping you alive on long trips. It kept out the bacteria and stuff that is bad for our systems because of the alcohols so, while we may drink it “to get drunk” they drank it to avoid intestinal dysfunctions from bad water and other liquids.

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    Bug Stomper
    May 27, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    If you ever tried ‘Sleeman IPA’, it’s the real deal. But they are in Guelph, Ontario, and because they’re a microbrewery, the only area you’ll find it for sale in is Southeren, Ontario.

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