Born during the Industrial Revolution, out of necessity and fueled by novelty, India pale ale is the subject of a 300-year-old saga that remains an unfinished book. The abridged version of British brewers sending their hoppy, fortified pale ales to troops in India is merely the veneer of this rich legacy.
If ever a beer style symbolized the rambunctious, independent nature of American microbrewers, the Imperial IPA does.
IPA is currently in the midst of its third movement, in a quintessentially American and extreme fashion. As the original IPAs served to fortify an already formidable brewing industry in England, so has Imperial IPA stoked a sizzling US craft-brewing scene. In today’s envelope-pushing state of brewing, modern IIPA has no equal, and hops are its heroes. IIPAs are becoming increasingly common in the quest for explosive and innovative beers.
The pale ale brewers of 18th-century England were the first truly avant-garde practitioners of the craft. Titanic breweries made vast quantities of product and were stable enough economically to purvey the beer. 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 to prove conducive to brewing. The commonly dark, sweet ales of London usually arrived in the subcontinent infected, bereft of carbonation, and not even remotely refreshing.
George Hodgson, brew master at The Bow Brewery in East London, seized the market by modifying his specialty—pale ale—using excessive hop dosages and elevated alcohol levels to reformulate his recipe for the voyage. Primed and dry-hopped casks kept his pale ale vital and less susceptible to microbial invaders. Later, family acrimony opened the door to the brewers of Burton-on-Trent, long known for creating outstanding darker beers.
The pale ale coming from the Trent valley tasted imminently better because its sulfate-rich water produced a clearer, paler ale―one with a pleasant and refreshing hop character. London’s carbonate water was more suitable for making darker beer. Local admiration continued but was short-lived because of other, equally innovative brewers in continental Europe.
In the latter half of the 19th century, charming pale lagers supplanted pale ales. It would be more than 100 years before pale ales would again become a preferred style of beer in England, and a little longer still before it was adopted by brewers abroad. Britain exported ales in the first half of the 19th century to the United States, following the original wave of immigrants. But, alas, as in Europe, lagers took over, ale production dissipated, and Prohibition essentially wiped out ale brewing in the United States.
But not every brewer fell quickly. Ballentine’s IPA―brewed first in 1830 by Scottish immigrant Peter Ballentine in his adopted New York―survived Prohibition and was last made in 1997. Ballentine’s was considered a venerable anachronism during the American brewing boom of the 1980s and ’90s. Called Ballentine’s Burton at one time, it was hoppy, of formidable strength, and was a rare brew, given its times. It is believed that many of the ales made in America today use a strain of yeast related to that used by Ballentine―a fitting, if serendipitous, tribute.