If cats have nine lives, then India pale ale can certainly lay claim to two. Its first span was relatively brief, not more than a hundred years. But during that time, this beer style refashioned 19th century brewing, not only in Britain but also on a world scale.
As the new millennium dawned and scores of new craft breweries opened in Britain and the United States, IPAs started to flow in ever increasing numbers.
As the name implies, IPA was brewed for Britain’s colonial trade, first for India and then for other parts of the empire. It was exported to the United States and then brewed there with gusto. The style may have spawned the lager revolution in central Europe, but it was a Faustian pact, and by the end of the 19th century, German lager brewers had driven IPA from most of the colonies.
In its second incarnation, IPA became a favorite of the craft brewing revolution in both Britain and the U.S., with dozens, possibly hundreds, of new interpretations of the style.
IPA is thought of, quintessentially, as the beer of Burton-on-Trent in the English Midlands. In fact, “India Ale” was first brewed in the late 18th century in London. Everything about that simple statement is astonishing. The beer was said to be much paler in color than the pervading styles of mild, porter and stout, yet pale beers were rare for the simple reason that most grain was kilned or gently roasted over wood fires that created brown malt and brown beer.
And London’s water, heavy in calcium carbonate, was better suited to the production of dark beers than pale ones. Yet one brewer, George Hodgson at Abbot & Hodgson’s Bow Brewery in East London, managed to create a beer that not only captivated drinkers in India but turned the craft of brewing on its head.
Starting with the Malt
In fact, pale malt had existed since the 18th century and was one of the constituents of “entire,” the first version of porter. But pale malt was expensive to make. Coal, not wood, was used as the fuel in malt kilns and coal was heavily taxed. When burned, it gave off gases that could give malt an unpleasant odor. It was not until coke—coal without the gases—was developed during the industrial revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries that pale malt was produced on a large commercial scale.
Hodgson, it must be assumed, had access to a modern, coke-fired malt kiln. He would undoubtedly have used large amounts of hops for bitterness and to keep his India ale free from infection. But the finished beer, as a result of London’s water, would have lacked the sharp, flinty edge of the Burton versions that came later. What is without doubt is that George Hodgson and his son Mark, who ran the company when his father retired, had a sharp eye for business.
Their brewery stood close to the East India Docks on the River Thames. The Hodgsons learned from contacts in the docks that sailing ships left London half-empty for India. Cargo rates were low for the outward voyage and this encouraged the brewers to export their India ale, as they heard that the British in India were unhappy with the dark beers sent them, which lacked the necessary refreshment needed in the torrid heat of the Indian sub-continent.
But Mark Hodgson, when he took over from his father, overplayed his hand. His brewery had created a virtual monopoly in India and he controlled prices. He often failed to pay his bills and upset his agents in India. He also made the supreme mistake of annoying the all-powerful East India Company that controlled most trade with the sub-continent.
As a result, in 1821 a director of the EIC named Marjoribanks told Samuel Allsopp, one of the leading brewers in Burton-on-Trent, that lucrative pickings were to be had in India. Marjoribanks told Allsopp that India offered a trade “that can never be lost: for the climate is too hot for brewing. We are now dependant upon Hodgson who has given offence to most of the merchants of India. But your Burton ale, so strong and sweet, will not suit our market.”
And the Burton brewers were desperate for new markets. Wars with Napoleon’s France had led to the loss of the Burton brewers’ lucrative Baltic trade. Allsopp, encouraged by his meeting with Marjoribanks, hurried back to Burton and handed his head brewer, Job Goodhead, a bottle of Hodgson’s India Ale. Goodhead tasted the beer and spit it out, affronted by its extreme bitterness. But he said he could replicate the beer and proceeded, in the finest English tradition, to make a trial brew in a teapot.
Allsopp soon had a consignment of beer ready for India. In a small town such as Burton, packed with breweries, news of the new beer spread as brewery workers mingled in taverns. Soon several of the other brewers, notably William Bass, Thomas Salt and William Worthington, had joined the India experiment. Within a decade, Allsopp and Bass accounted for more than half the beer shipped to Calcutta, twice as much as Hodgson. Throughout the 1830s, the two main Burton brewers sent some 6,000 barrels a year of pale ale to India. Hodgson went into decline and was bought out in 1885.
Unique Burton Water
The Burton beers were superior to Hodgson’s as a result of the water in the Midlands town. Burton had been an important brewing center since the 11th century, but it was IPA in the 19th that unleashed the full potential of the local water. Burton lies in the valley of the River Trent. The area stands on sandstone and gravel, and the natural springs that bubble to the surface are rich in sulfates, calcium and magnesium in particular.
The salts give a dry, flinty character to beer. As they are flavor enhancers, they bring out the best characteristics of malt, hops and yeast. According to Paul Bayley, the now-retired head brewer at the major Burton brewer, Marston’s, “calcium reduces sugar and helps produce more alcohol. It keeps the yeast active, reduces haze, decreases beer color and improves hop utilization. The result is a more bitter beer. Magnesium acts in a similar fashion and sulfate gives a drier flavor and enhances bitterness.”
The Burton beers exceeded Hodgson’s India ale in terms of clarity, hopping rate and consumer appeal. The clarity was achieved as a result a major innovation in Burton: the “union method” of fermentation. As the India trade flourished—in 1840, some 20,00 barrels were exported and the business rose to a peak of 217,000 barrels in 1870—brewers hurried to Burton to brew pale beer with the aid of the local water. One of the incomers, thought to be William Walker from northwest England, developed a system of fermentation—the Burton unions—that cleansed beer of yeast. The result was a beer with an appealing sparkle.
Sales of India pale ale grew in line with the growth of British influence overseas. The gold rush in Australia sent 400,000 British emigrants in search of wealth. Beer followed on clippers that took 68 days to reach Australia. New Zealand was soon added as a destination, while brewers also supplied British army garrisons in Cyprus, Egypt, Gibraltar and South Africa. The Caribbean islands followed and the United States provided a ready market, though there were difficulties there.
William Younger, a Scottish brewer, enjoyed such excellent sales for his India and Scotch ales in the U.S. that he employed his own agent in New York City. But the agent could not prevent American brewers passing off their products and he was forced to place the following advertisement in the press: “Having the direct agency for the sale of William Younger & Co.’s Ales, Edinburgh, Scotland, I would caution the purchasers of Scotch Ale against the many spurious imitations sold, and in many instances bottled in this city. To escape prosecution for forgery, they have slightly changed the spelling thus—‘Yonkers’—retaining the same style of bottles and color, and otherwise a facsimile of the genuine label.” When 100 casks of Younger’s ales were put on sale in Boston they sold so fast that the importer told Edinburgh, “We could have sold readily 500 casks of your ale.”
An agent in Baltimore complained bitterly to Younger that he had ordered IPA but had been sent porter instead. Bass Ale was listed on the menu of the dining cars of the Union Pacific railroad, while Allsopp’s pale ale won prizes in the Centennial Brewers’ Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.
Scottish brewers in Alloa and Edinburgh, blessed with hard brewing water similar to Burton’s, were quick to cash in on the demand for IPA, with such success that by 1890 a third of beer exported from Britain came from Scotland. But by that date the funeral bell was starting to toll for the style.
In 1885, two Germans founded the Gambrinus Brewery in Melbourne, Australia, dedicated to producing lager beer. They were followed by the Foster brothers from New York, who arrived with a modern refrigeration plant. In 1900, a Swiss brewer, Conrad Breustch, was invited to New Zealand specifically to brew lager. German brewers began to make inroads in Africa and the British suffered the appalling indignity of seeing their pale ales chased out of India by German lager technology. In the United States, the “second wave” of immigrants brought with them the skills and knowledge to recreate the new beers of Bavaria and Bohemia.
Even in its homeland, IPA had been supplanted by its junior brother, pale ale. At the turn of the 20th century, as brewers began to build “tied estates”—pubs they directly owned—they turned away from beers that needed months to mature and developed instead new “running beers” that ripened in cask within a few days. IPA was not entirely dead, but the hey-day was over.
The Modern Revival
The rebirth of IPA in Britain is largely due to one man, Mark Dorber, who ran for close to 20 years the White Horse pub in Parson’s Green, South-west London. His lasting legacy will be his passion for Burton pale ale, a passion passed on to brewers and drinkers alike. When he first worked at the White Horse, he devoted evenings and weekends to learning cellar technique. He bombarded brewers at Bass in Burton-on-Trent with questions about their brewing methods and their recommendations for storing and serving draft beer in the pub.
In 1990, he convened a seminar at the pub on the subject of Burton pale ale and commissioned written contributions from brewers and maltsters. The papers were published in simple book form, word-processed documents in a blue binder. Along with fellow beer writers Barrie Pepper and Michael Jackson, I was privileged to attend the discussion. We heard from Paul Bayley, head brewer at Marston’s, on the vital roles played by yeast and Burton spring waters in producing pale ale, while Tom Dawson, a retired Bass brewer, gave a fascinating short history of brewing in the town.
Barry Jones, trade liaison brewer with Ind Coope in Burton, discussed cellaring and dispensing techniques. Dr. Keith Thomas, from Brewers’ Laboratory (Brewlab), provided a brilliant analysis of the aroma, taste and aftertaste of six Burton-brewed pale ales.
Enthused by the success of the seminar, Dorber approached Bass in 1993 with the suggestion that the company should recreate a 19th-century India pale ale for a festival he was planning for the White Horse. Bass agreed and commissioned Tom Dawson to oversee the project. Dawson recalled brewing a beer called Bass Continental for the Belgian market from the 1950s to the 1970s, a beer based on recipes for Bass pale ales from the 1850s.
The five-barrel pilot brewery at Bass in Burton was the center of operations when six hogsheads or 324 gallons of beer were brewed in two batches. The recipe was made up of 90 percent Halcyon pale malt and 10 percent brewing sugar, while East Kent Goldings and Progress hops were added at two stages during the copper boil, with Goldings used to “dry hop” the beer in cask. The yeast was the traditional two-strain Bass culture. The beer created was 7.2 percent alcohol, with a stunning 83 units of bitterness, more than twice the average of even the bitterest modern beer.
The beer was aged in cask for five weeks before it was served at the White Horse in July, 1993. I reported my findings in What’s Brewing: “The beer is burnished gold in color. The color rating is 18 units. Placed next to a glass of modern Draught Bass and the classic Pilsner Urquell lager beer, the White Horse IPA was midway between the two. The aroma was pungent and resiny. Hops dominated the palate and the long, intense bitter finish. Malt and yeast also had their say in the aroma and palate of the beer. Ripe bananas, pear drop and apple esters began to make themselves felt as the beer warmed up.”
What’s Old is New
The genie was out of the bottle. A year later, Dorber and I, with the support of the British Guild of Beer Writers, organized a further seminar on Burton pale ale and IPA in London. This time, we cast the net wider and invited both British and American brewers to create their interpretations of IPA for the occasion.
We had samples of the style from Ind Coope and Marston’s in Burton-on-Trent and Whitbread’s Castle Eden Brewery in northeast England. There were three beers from the United States: Renegade Red, brewed by Thom Tomlinson in Boulder, CO, which had won a gold medal at the 1993 Great American Beer Festival; Bombay Bomber, brewed by Teri Fahrendorf in Eugene, OR; and India Pale Ale brewed by Garrett Oliver, who was then working for the Manhattan Brewery.
Mark Dorber brought a batch of the White Horse IPA, by then 11 months old. In order to counter the pronounced banana ester on the beer, Mark had dry hopped it for a second time in the pub. The IPA had become much softer over time. The fruitiness was almost Madeira-like, with a pungent apricot note on the nose, fruit, hops and nuts in the mouth, and a big bittersweet finish.
The seminar was well attended by brewers, beer writers and even several noted British wine writers. At first the repercussions were slow and even disappointing. Seismic changes in the British brewing industry saw Bass, Ind Coope and Whitbread leave brewing.
But as the new millennium dawned and scores of new craft breweries opened in Britain and the United States, IPAs started to flow in ever increasing numbers. British drinkers can enjoy export IPAs from Goose Island and Sierra Nevada. The Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh won the Champion Beer of Britain award in 2002 with its Deuchar’s IPA. The small Burton Bridge brewery in Burton claimed the bottle-conditioned section of the championship with its Empire Pale Ale, while Marston’s introduced a draft and bottled version of the style with Old Empire. In London, the Meantime Brewery in Greenwich launched a magnificent interpretation of the style, which is on sale in the U.S.
Greenwich is just a short ferry ride across the Thames to where Hodgson plied his trade and first brewed India ale for export. Truly, the brewing wheel has turned full circle.