The story of India pale ale (IPA) is one of the most romantic in the history of beer. At the height of its empire, Britain had emigrants, sailors and troops all around the world—with India being one of its most important outposts. All demanded beer, but India itself was too warm for brewing. To meet that need, London brewers who supplied ale learned through experience that the voyage to India could be tough on perishable beers.
George Hodgson, a London brewer in the late 1700s, used his connections to the East India Co. to dominate the export market to the colony. Among other beers, Hodgson exported a strong pale ale. It was probably brewed with extra additions of hops and at higher alcohol levels, both of which act as preservatives. The long voyage transformed the beer into a wonderful drink.
But Hodgson overreached, and that opened the door to the brewers of Burton-on-Trent, in the English Midlands. The pale ale coming from the Trent valley tasted far better than London brews, because its hard water produced a brighter ale—one with a pleasant and refreshing hop character.
Burton brewmaster Samuel Allsop succeeded in brewing one of exceptional quality. It displaced the London beers to become the preferred export to the English colonies. This came to be called India pale ale, or IPA.
Crossing the Atlantic
Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, fashionable continental pale lagers chipped away at pale ale’s rightful place in English pubs. This phenomenon was even more pronounced abroad. Britain exported ales to the United States, following the original wave of immigrants. But, as in Europe, lagers took over, and ale production dwindled. Then Prohibition essentially wiped out ale brewing in the United States.
But IPAs were about to enter their second chapter. As microbreweries cropped up in the 1970s, long-forgotten ale styles began to reappear. The use of American ingredients, especially hops, were an eye-opener to those who tasted these beers for the first time.
New Albion Brewing in Sonoma, CA, was one of the first to venture into this frontier. Though they lasted only a few years, they helped sow the seeds of the American craft brewing revolution.
San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery was rescued from closure in the 1960s. In 1975, it released what is now known as Liberty Ale, originally calling it “Our Special Ale.” An instant classic, it was made with American ingredients and qualifies as the first modern American IPA.
Over the next decade or so, IPAs grew in popularity until they became the best-selling craft style. Nearly every brewery made one. After years of drinking fairly bland lagers, it seemed that American beer lovers could not get enough hops. The enthusiasm for aromatic, strong IPAs rolled unfettered through the 1980s and into the ‘90s.
Over time, as palates acclimated and brewers looked for something new, a natural progression happened. Brewers started demonstrating their skill with bigger and bigger beers, fortified with massive doses of hops. There was little reason to hold back, as America had lost its brewing personality 50 years earlier and was essentially reinventing itself. There were no guidelines to follow and no traditionalists to answer to. The brewers themselves were making (and breaking) the rules, restrained only by the limits of their own creativity.
IPA was a natural target for that take-no-prisoners attitude. Soon enough, hops won the battle for supremacy. The United States, primarily in the Pacific Northwest, grows a greater variety of hops than anywhere else. American hops run the gamut from soft and citrusy, to rough and resiny and even fruity. In proper combination, they can produce an IPA with an unimaginable hop profile.
Eventually, the biggest of these new IPAs grew so strong and hoppy that there were questions about whether they were IPAs at all. And so a new beer style was born: the double or imperial IPA. This brash new style symbolizes the rambunctious, independent nature of American microbrewers. It’s even spawned a movement of its own, with the “imperialization” of other styles becoming more common. As traditional as it, the world of beer never stands still.