Pale ale for the East and West India climate.
Such was the labeling on India pale ale in the late 18th century, a style that became a hit with homesick men in British colonies that was—much later—tweaked and revived by American brewers with bolder-tasting, indigenous ingredients.
The style now dominates the craft-beer market to the point where virtually everyone has heard of it. The New England/hazy version was last month’s topic for this column, and standard IPAs have been the topic of others. But the style’s history is full of myths and simplifications, and I wanted to see if I could tease out something closer to the truth for those who have heard the tales, but never looked any deeper. I have repeated some of these myths in the past, so this journey upon which we are about to embark will hopefully prove as enlightening as it is interesting for beer geeks like myself.
The first IPA—an abbreviation by which the style became known decades after its first brewing—has often been credited to George Hodgson, of the Bow Brewery of London, in the 1790s. Hodgson was sending what then was considered excessively hopped pale ale to the East. This crediting is most likely an oversimplification; brewers as early as the 1760s knew of the necessity to add extra hops to barrels being sent to hotter climates in order to prevent spoilage. Porter often reached warmer destinations spoiled or sour (or it was consumed by the ship’s crew before sailing into port), and pale ales at the time would have fared no better. This dilemma almost certainly created a longing in overseas British citizens for a refreshing pale ale that couldn’t be sated.
The likely reason that Hodgson was remembered is that his brewery was fortuitously located close to docking site of the East Indiamen on the River Thames in East London. The Indiamen were intermediaries to the East India Company and traded on their own behalf. Hodgson issued extended credit to the Indiamen so that, even though Bow Brewery was a smaller company, their beer was ideally positioned to become the preferred pale ale of India—until larger breweries such as Bass Brewery in Burton-upon-Trent (the home of the pale ale, a topic I covered in a column on the very brief history beer) became dominant after a railway from Burton to London was completed in 1839.
All of this leaves us with what amounted to an extra-hoppy pale ale. However, some perspective is needed: The modern IPAs that surround us today stretch the phrase “extra hoppy” into a whole new dimension. English hops are wonderful in their own regard, but they’re not much like newer strains of hops, which often exhibit huge citrus, pine and tropical-fruit aromas and flavors. British hops, instead, are often floral, grassy and earthy. English pales are some of the first styles that got me interested in beer, and I am always pleased when I can find a pint somewhere (especially if it’s been brewed by a brewer in the U.S.); I would highly recommend trying some. Unfortunately, they are not very popular here, because the hoppy quality in them is somewhat restrained compared to the style’s American cousin. Why do I like them? The maltiness of the beer still readily shines through, offering a delicious, biscuity, caramel-toffee playground for the hops.
These extra-hopped pales eventually grew a little stronger and drier, sometimes utilizing white sugar to add alcohol to the final product without adding flavor or body (a practice similar to methods used for some Belgian ales).
The information becomes conspicuously thin when it comes to the IPAs of the early part of the 20th century. The most obvious reason is war; two world wars really concentrate the old resources, it turns out, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. The history of beer has a corollary with the history of taxation. Britain taxed alcohol partly as a temperance measure; leaders were appalled by the amount of public drunkenness in the early 20th century, so they subjected beer to extra taxation—some of it based on alcohol strength—and banned the buying of a round in pubs. Combined with the tightening of resources, this taxation drove down the strength of beer overall, with some styles being as low as 2 percent alcohol by volume. As a result, the India pale ale became an endangered species. It’s strange to imagine considering the current state of beer, but the style very well could have died out for good.
It would take hops from the New World and enterprising small brewers to change the style and create a spark from which one of the biggest craft-beer trends emerged. That is a story for another time, however—one that is evolving under our noses.
For those who want to do the best kind of research—research by consumption—regarding British-style pale ales, both Samuel Smith and Fuller’s make wonderful versions that you can get locally relatively easily. The former also makes an IPA that is a great beer regardless of style, history or anything else beyond the experience itself. If you’re willing to drive, the greater Los Angeles area has two breweries that dedicate themselves to traditional English styles: Yorkshire Square Brewery in Torrance (named after the “Yorkshire Square” fermenters used by the aforementioned Samuel Smith Brewery) and McLeod Ale in Van Nuys.
Maybe one day, English pales will become a craft-beer trend, and people like me who never stopped loving them will be able to easily enjoy fresh versions made here in the States. Just maybe.