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IPA or India Pale Ales are arguably one of the more popular styles of beer and are often credited with helping to kick off the craft beer movement. The exact origin of this style is murky, both in the naming and whether or not is was discovered or simply evolved from its predecessors (like a lot of other styles).
The name probably developed over a length of time after pale ales began shipping to India with one of the earlier references being pale ale for sale in India.
But, it is widely thought that the name’s origins lay somewhere in history when one of the earlier references of pale ales being shipped and sold in India.
The most popular legend of the creation of the India Pale Ale is a great one. The best version I found on the Smithsonian’s website (reference at the bottom of this article):
I discovered that the Smithsonian’s website has probably the most popular legend of the creation of the India Pale Ale and it’s a fascinating tale. (reference at the bottom of this article):
The British Indian army was parched. Soaking through their khakis in the equatorial heat, they pined for real refreshment. These weren’t the jolly days of ice-filled gin-and-tonics, lawn chairs and cricket. The first Brits to come south were stuck with lukewarm beer—specifically dark, heavy, porter, the most popular brew of the day in chilly Londontown, but unfit for the tropics. One Bombay-bound supply ship was saved from wrecking in the shallows when its crew lightened it by dumping some of its cargo — no great loss, a newspaper reported, “as the goods consisted principally of some heavy lumbersome casks of Government porter.”
Most of that porter came from George Hodgson’s Bow brewery, just a few miles up the river Lea from the East India Company’s headquarters in east London. Outward bound, ships carried supplies for the army, who paid well enough for a taste of home, and particularly for beer, but the East India Company (EIC) made all its profit on the return trip, when its clippers rode low in the water, holds weighed with skeins of Chinese silk and sacks of cloves.
The trip to India took at least six months, crossing the equator twice. In these thousand-ton ships, called East Indiaman, the hold was a hellish cave, hazy with heat and packed gunwale to gunwale with crates and barrels that pitched and rolled and strained their ropes with every wave. While sailors sick from scurvy groaned above, the beer below fared just as poorly. It often arrived stale, infected, or worse, not at all, the barrels having leaked or broken — or been drunk — en route.
Hodgson sold his beer on 18-month credit, which meant the EIC could wait to pay for it until their ships returned from India, emptied their holds, and refilled the company’s purses. Still, the army, and thus the EIC, was frustrated with the quality Hodgson was providing. Hodgson tried unfermented beer, adding yeast once it arrived safely in port. They tried beer concentrate, diluting it on shore. Nothing worked. Nothing, that is, until Hodgson offered, instead of porter, a few casks of a strong, pale beer called barleywine or “October beer.” It got its name from its harvest-time brewing, made for wealthy country estates “to answer the like purpose of wine” — an unreliable luxury during years spent bickering with France. “Of a Vinous Nature” — that is, syrupy strong as good Sherry — these beers were brewed especially rich and aged for years to mellow out. Some lords brewed a batch to honor a first son’s birth, and tapped it when the child turned eighteen. To keep them tasting fresh, they were loaded with just-picked hops. Barclay Perkins’s KKKK ale used up to 10 pounds per barrel. Hodgson figured a beer that sturdy could withstand the passage to India.
He was right. His shipment arrived to fanfare. On a balmy January day in 1822, the Calcutta Gazette announced the unloading of “Hodgson’s warranted prime picked ale of the genuine October brewing. Fully equal, if not superior, to any ever before received in the settlement.” The army had been waiting for this — pale and bright and strong, those Kentish hops a taste of home (not to mention a scurvy-busting boost of antibiotics).
The praise turned Hodgson’s sons Mark and Frederick, who took over the brewery from their father soon after, ruthless. In the years to come, if they heard that another brewer was preparing a shipment, they’d flood the market to drive down prices and scare off the competition. They tightened their credit limits and hiked up their prices, eventually dumping the EIC altogether and shipping beer to India themselves. The suits downriver were not amused. By the late 1820s, EIC director Campbell Marjoribanks, in particular, had had enough. He stormed into Bow’s rival Allsopp with a bottle of Hodgson’s October beer and asked for a replica.
Allsopp was good at making porter — dark, sweet, and strong, the way the Russians liked it. When Sam Allsopp tried the sample of Hodgson’s beer Marjoribanks had brought, he spit it out — too bitter for the old man’s palate. Still, India was an open market. Allsopp agreed to try a pale. He asked his maltster, Job Goodhead, to find the lightest, finest, freshest barley he could. Goodhead kilned it extra lightly, to preserve its subtle sweetness – he called it “white malt” – and steeped a test brew (legend has it) in a tea kettle. The beer that barley made was something special too: “a heavenly compound,” one satisfied drinker reported. “Bright amber, crystal clear,” he went on, with a “very peculiar fine flavor.”
There is a lot of discussion about whether or not this story is true, but we do now that most of the players in this story did exist and did ship beer to India during this time. I’ll leave you with a couple of references to articles that are more well researched than mine. You can decide for yourself how much of this story is truth and how much is myth.
Stay tuned for my next post on what differentiates an IPA from other beers.