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.