Most people would call it crazy, but the crazies call it ‘living archeology’: if material remains of our past no longer exist, we have to recreate past times as best we can in order to figure out the truth of how people lived back then. It drives some to live as bronze-age villagers, others to dress up as Roman legionnaires and go ten rounds with Gaulish barbarians. It drove me to recreate the greatest journey beer has ever made, an 18,000 mile sea journey that hasn’t existed for 140 years.
It began with a question that seemed obvious in retrospect: every brewer of an ‘authentic’ India Pale Ale claimed this was a beer that matured and developed on a long, tumultuous sea voyage from England to India. Yet no modern brewer had sent their beer on this journey. So how did they know if it was authentic or not? Who knew what a ‘real’ IPA tasted like? I didn’t think anyone did, not really. And as soon as this occurred to me, I realized I was going to change that. Whatever it took.
It’s funny how in what you might later describe as a ‘moment of madness,’ you feel saner than at any other time in your life. The brain clears of all its usual clutter, and the one insane thought that occupies it sits there shining and elegant, obvious and all embracing. When the idea of brewing a nineteenth century India Pale Ale and carrying it on its legendary journey first occurred to me, it seemed like the most obvious, sensible thing in the whole world.
It seemed less obvious―and certainly less sensible―over the ensuing six months, when people who know best about this kind of thing told me it couldn’t be done; when I discovered that no ship in the world stops in South Africa en route to India; when I had to apply for visas to enter India and Iran; and particularly when the Iranians refused my visa. Eventually, via a combination of cruise liner, sailing boat and cargo ship, I managed to piece together an approximation of the route. But it cost me dearly, and not just in monetary terms. Time and again I asked myself why I was doing this. Each time, I came back to the same point.
IPA is my favorite beer style, and my favorite beer story. The trouble with beer stories is that they tend to get told the way all good stories are―from mouth to mouth, from pub to pub. The edges are worn away. Details are misremembered. And a dramatic flourish some guy added in a moment of inspiration becomes a core ‘fact’ two tellings down the line.
I wanted to write the definitive history of IPA. Beer history is a vast and sprawling thing, full of holes and traps. But I figured I had chosen a narrow enough field to be able dig deeper than anyone before. Two and a half years later, after sifting through frustratingly incomplete brewery archives, panning for gold in the East India Company’s records and handling newspapers in which the French Revolution was reported as breaking news, I’d say I have the dubious honor of knowing more about the history of IPA than any other living soul. I’m not sure if that’s something I should be proud of, or bring up with my analyst.
I started off by gathering everything written about IPA in beer books and journals and on websites, everything in historical tomes and style guides. Most of it pointed back to two books: one published in 1853, the other in 1870. Each of these, in its own way, is somewhat unreliable. Consequently, many myths have grown up around IPA, as passionate fans attempt to discover more about the beer it and its origins. Here are ten of the biggest myths around this fascinating legend―some wholly inaccurate―others merely misunderstood.
1. IPA was invented by London brewer George Hodgson in 1785.
There are two falsehoods in this statement. Hodgson is often credited with ‘inventing’ IPA because he was the brewer who first gained supremacy in the Indian market. But for years before his rise to prominence, ‘pale ale’ was being advertised in the Calcutta Gazette. Well before Hodgson’s ale was advertised by name, brewers such as Bell’s of Burton-on-Trent were prominently featured.
IPA evolved from aged October ales, and it’s likely that several brewers had the idea of adapting these ales for the Indian market independently of each other. Any interested brewer would know that beers high in alcohol and hops, designed for cellar aging up to ten years, had the best chance of surviving a six-month sea journey. The Hodgson family gained prominence primarily through their commercial dealings with the East India Company rather than by inventing a new beer―most likely, they gradually evolved their recipe based on feedback from India.
As for the 1785 date―this is often cited because it is the date of an ad in the Calcutta Gazette for ‘pale ale, light and sparkling.’ The reason there are no prior ads is because this is the date the Gazette, the first newspaper in British India, was first published―not because pale ale didn’t exist in India before. There are records of ‘Burton and pale ale’ being drunk in Madras as early as 1717―giving the lie to the myth that this was a new style of beer invented in London later that century, and that London brewers predated Burton in India.
2. IPA became popular in England following a shipwreck in 1827, when an India-bound cargo was washed ashore near Liverpool.
This story is reported in Alfred Molyneaux’s book, Burton and its Bitter Beer, written fifty years after the supposed event, with no specific names, dates or sources. The shipwreck probably did happen. Ships were wrecked off the British coast all the time, and their cargoes were routinely sold off by insurers. So it’s highly likely that cargoes of India-bound beers were sold off in this way on a regular basis, but very unlikely that one specific incident introduced Britain to India Pale Ale in such a dramatic fashion. Bass and Allsopp, the two most famous Burton brewers, were both selling strong pale ale in Britain before 1827, and yet ‘India Pale Ale’ was not introduced as a term to describe beer until 1833―proving that that the style came around as a gradual evolution.
3. OK then, how about this—IPA became world-famous following Bass’ presence at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, which was visited by a third of the UK population. That must be true—it’s in the definitive history of Bass Charrington, researched entirely from original daybooks, brewing logs, press cuttings etc.
Admittedly persuasive and cited regularly in newspaper stories about IPA from as early as 1870. But a cursory examination of the records of the Great Exhibition reveals that the event was dry. The organizers were worried that with the aid of alcohol, such a gathering of the masses could easily turn into a riotous mob. Some enterprising businessmen sold beer through the railings lining Hyde Park―where the Exhibition was held―and were promptly arrested. The only beer drunk inside was ginger ale.
4. IPA was remarkable because the grueling journey to India meant other beers, such as porter, were undrinkable by the time they arrived.
Early ads in Indian newspapers reveal the Anglo-Indians enjoyed porter, brown ale, cyder, even small beer, as well as pale ale. Even when IPA reached its zenith in the 1870s, porter was still being imported to India in huge quantities. IPA wasn’t the only beer that could survive the journey (porter was also high in alcohol, and could just as well have been highly hopped). It’s more that, when consumed ice cold, it was the beer that most suited the Anglo-Indian palate.
5. IPA was cask conditioned, with live yeast undergoing a vigorous fermentation in the cask during the journey to India.
Every brewer who wrote a guide to brewing India Pale Ale in the nineteenth century agreed that the worst thing that could possibly happen to the beer was for residual yeast in the cask to create a secondary fermentation. While filtration techniques were not what they are now, brewers tried their best to get as much of the yeast out of the beer as they possibly could before packaging it for the journey. Even then, between eight and ten percent of casks exploded en route. And at temperatures of over thirty degrees, yeast would have started to misbehave and add unwelcome Brettanomyces characteristics to the beer. So IPA was filtered.
Add to this the belief of Madeira winemakers that long exposure to moderately high temperatures over long periods had an effect comparable to shorter, more intense pasteurization, and IPA had more in common with a modern filtered and pasteurized beer than a ‘traditional’ cask conditioned ale―a style that was actually a descendant from IPA.
6. After being tested for quality, substandard beer was poured away on the Calcutta dockside.
OK this did happen―there are occasional eyewitness accounts―but it was extremely rare. True, beer was rigorously tested for quality at the dockside, but ‘rejected beer’ was auctioned off cheap. The buyer would simply put up with it, or reseed it with molasses and herbs to disguise off-flavors. If it was really too bad to drink, there were all sorts of other things it was used for: cooking, the basis for ketchup, even boot polish. Good IPA was as expensive as fine French claret. It cost a great deal to get anything to India. Even the bad stuff needed to recoup some value.
7. Modern American IPAs are different from traditional Burton IPA because of American hops—which the Burton beer didn’t have.
By IPA’s peak in the 1870s, Britain couldn’t grow enough hops to supply the incredible amounts of beer being brewed in Burton, and was a net importer of hops. Many of these came from Europe, but a significant quantity originated in North America. Hops were simply classified by their origin, or perhaps the name of the grower, so we can’t tell what varieties were used. But one complaint from Bass that their American hops tasted of ‘blackcurrant leaf’ suggests that at least some were the pungent, aromatic varieties we know today―suggesting that at least some ‘traditional’ IPA resembled modern American versions.
8. IPA was often sent to India and back before being consumed in England.
When it arrived in India, IPA was described as ‘well up,’ ‘ripe’ and ready to drink―or nearly thereabouts. By chance, trial and error, the journey brought it to perfect condition on its arrival in India, and a return leg would have been too much even for this robust beer. Also, it was a bulky cargo. It was useful ballast on the way out, but homebound ships were laden with cargoes of fabric and tea, or were bound for China full of opium. It simply would not have been economic to take beer any further even if it could have survived.
9. IPA was killed by the rise of lager.
Not so much a myth as a myopic version of the truth. Around 1900, the Indian beer market was completely overwhelmed by Pilsner lagers such as Becks, which were even more ideally suited to the climate than IPA had been. But by this time the demand for any beer was a fraction of what it had been, and IPA was already a pale shadow of its former glory. Gin and tonic or long, weak whisky and sodas were far more fashionable than beer by this time, and brewing had also been mastered in India itself, making the need for the long, conditioning ocean journey obsolete. But more importantly than all this, it had become deeply unfashionable to drink any alcohol at all. Drunkenness went from being socially obligatory in IPA’s formative decades to being completely unacceptable. If any drink can be accused of killing off IPA, it would be more accurate to blame the scalding hot cup of tea.
10. IPA was a very tightly defined style. Imperial IPAs, double IPAs etc. are quite different from the original beer that inspired them.
Not so much a myth, more a ‘How do you know’? Beer aficionados get very passionate when discussing what constitutes a ‘proper’ IPA, what malts and hops were used, how strong it was and how it was conditioned. But the truth is, pale ale was evolved and adapted for the Indian market for at least fifty years before anyone started referring to it as India Pale Ale. No one knows what the original recipe was―or even if there was a beer that can be considered to be the original recipe. IPA, brown ale, porter and small beer were easily distinguishable from each other. Beyond that, there was enormous variety within each style, and these styles varied markedly over time.
So is there a lesson to all this, beyond the fact that too much historical research turns one into an irritating pedant? I think so. Beer is a living, organic creation that cannot be pinned to the page. It will always have a core of mystery to it―and that only adds to its allure.
Pete Brown was born in 1968 in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England. Since 1991 he has worked in advertising, specializing in marketing beer. He has appeared regularly on television as a beer expert, writes on beer for a variety of publications and is the author of Man Walks into a Pub, the award-winning travel book Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops and Glory. He lives in London.