IPA - The Origin of India Pale Ales, Part I


By Thom Tomlinson (Brewing Techniques)


Whole Hop Cones


In this first of two articles on India Pale Ale, Thom Tomlinson presents the history of the style’s invention and early development in 18th century Britain. In the next issue, Tomlinson reviews the evolution of American IPA variants and discusses practical considerations for modern brewers. Interested in brewing your own IPA at home? Browse our slection of IPA beer kits!


India Pale Ale, Part I: IPA and Empire -- Necessity and Enterprise 


Roots in Empire and Adventure


India Pale Ale — the name stirs up images of tall ships and faraway places. A beer with such a name should have a bold and stirring character, and India Pale Ales (IPAs) usually deliver. The bitterness, hop aroma, fruitiness, and high mineral content characteristic of this style offer adventure in every pint.


The adventure of IPA has proven irresistible to me. Over the past several years I have sampled a wide range of IPAs brewed in Britain and the United States, and these beers have rarely disappointed. This installment of “Brewing in Styles” reviews the events surrounding the creation of the original India Pale Ale recipe and considers the characteristics of 19th century examples of this style. The next issue’s installment will look at current interpretations of the style and consider various practical aspects of brewing beers within this theme.


For beer lovers, the history of a style proves interesting and enlightening. This is particularly true for IPA lovers. More than having a place in the history of beer styles, IPA shaped the course of British brewing history. No other style can claim such an influential role, and no other style possesses characteristics more determined by function. IPA was a solution to a problem. For these reasons and more, India Pale Ale deserves special consideration rather than relegation as a simple subheading under pale ale.


The Great Beer Problem


The defining character of IPA is the result of many people’s efforts to solve a vexing problem. Imagine, if you will, a country filled with people who love to drink fine ale. That country establishes one of the great naval forces of all time, and in so doing its leaders encounter many challenges. Not the least of those challenges was the one concerning the important beer drinking needs of the navy’s sailors and the soldiers and colonists in settlements around the world.


The problem facing the British during the 18th and 19th centuries was that beer did not keep well on long ocean voyages, especially voyages into hot climates. These hot environments often resulted in flat, sour beer. Voyages often lasted months, a long time for British sailors to go without a pint of beer. If such a situation were allowed, sailors would miss not only the cultural aspects of ale, but also the ready source of B vitamins that beer provided.


The importance of beer was not lost on the British Admiralty: ships on station in the English Channel issued a ration of 1 gal of beer per man per day. Those serving in the cool Baltic waters also had access to beer. It was on long voyages into the tropics that the men suffered the most from lack of beer.


So how would the enterprising British solve the great beer problem? The Admiralty was desperate for a way to transport beer to the far corners of the globe.


Mathias reports that the Royal Society got involved as early as the mid-18th century. Several ideas were considered, including freezing out water to concentrate the beer. Finally, in 1772 Henry Pelham, Secretary to the Commissioner of Victualling, suggested that brewers simmer away most of the water from their wort. Once at sea the sailors could add water and let the beer “stand to acquire a proper spirit and briskness.” Later that year, and early in 1773, Captain Cook and the officers of the Endeavour reported that the concentrate, combined with yeast and spruce, did quite well in cooler waters. The Admiralty was cautiously pleased with the results. However, reports about the concentrate’s bad performance in warmer climates and inconsistent performance in cooler climates led to the demise of on-board brewing from concentrate in the Royal Navy.


Nevertheless, on-board brewing with concentrates won some favor in other quarters, and some examples survived to modern times, such as sweet nonalcoholic malt beverages (Mather’s Black beer of Yorkshire, for example). On the continent, Braunschweiger Mumme, a German wort concentrate, achieved a certain degree of commercial success.


Had the concentrate scheme been successful for on-board brewing, the Royal Admiralty’s alliance with rum, which began in 1740, would probably have been less strong. Rum’s high alcohol content conserved space, and it could be easily cut into grog with water, citrus juice, and sugar. Beer was regarded as more temperate and healthful than hard liquor. Despite the Admiralty’s preference for beer, however, the failure of the concentrate scheme forced them to settle for rum.


In the end, the Admiralty failed to solve the great beer problem, and British troops and colonists continued to need ales. For other than cultural reasons, colonists often preferred imported ales to local water supply, but in tropical places like India, local temperatures prevented successful brewing. The Indian market, although a difficult one, remained open.


The East Indies Market


The East Indies market proved intractable for two reasons. First, after Britain had established itself in India (ca. 1772), it had a large number of troops and an increasing number of European civilians to supply with beer. Second, the arduous, three- to five-month journey proved a difficult passage for the sweet dark ales of England. Ships left London, and sometimes Liverpool, between late November and early February, arriving in India between March and May. The winter departures ensured that the ships reached the Indian Ocean before the monsoon season. Heading south from London, the ships crossed the equator, cruised south along the coast of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and then crossed the Indian Ocean to reach Bombay, Calcutta, and other ports of call.


Even though the hogsheads of ale were stored in the lowest level of the ship’s hull — the coolest place in the ship — the temperature fluctuations were tremendous (Hogsheads were large casks or barrels with a capacity of 54 Imperial gal, about 65 U.S. gal). This data indicates that for the first few weeks of the voyage, water temperatures were roughly 52 °F. As the ships entered equatorial regions, temperatures climbed to 81 °F. Slightly past the midpoint of the journey, the ships passed around the Cape of Good Hope where temperatures dropped to between 65 and 69 °F. Once in the southern parts of the Indian Ocean, water temperatures climbed to 73 °F for several weeks of the voyage. Finally, as the vessel headed north toward India, surface temperatures would reach 83–86 °F. Combine the temperature fluctuations with the normal rocking motion of such a journey and the rough waters off of southern Africa, and you have one hellish trip for an ale.


Despite these obstacles, however, brewers did try to establish exports to India. Early shipments to India contained bottled porters, the favorite beer in London, which typically arrived flat, musty, and sour. Some improvement came when Benjamin Wilson and Samuel Allsopp tried a new packaging technique designed to take advantage of the very shipping problems that were causing so many difficulties. They advised brewers to uncork freshly conditioned porters, allowing the beer to go flat, then recork the bottles and load them aboard departing ships. These were the procedures adopted by the London wine merchant Kenton, who was the first person to ship porter to India. In theory, the natural rocking motion of the ship helped the beers achieve a second carbonation and “briskness” by the time they reached India. Two problems remained: The beers lacked shelf life, and beer drinking preferences tended to change in the tropics; the dark ales of London were possibly less satisfying to Britons in the heat of India.


Why would brewers continue their persistent efforts to attack the East Indies market? In addition to the problems created by the journey, the staggering delay between accepting orders and delivering the beer meant that a specific market could change dramatically before the beer arrived. Once the beer did reach India, it had to pass the inspection of official tasters whose evaluations could deny the beer entry into India or hurt the beer’s auctioning price.


Apparently, however, high demand and low shipping rates could result in huge profit margins. The low outward rates for shipping beer to India (rates from London to Bombay equaled those from London to Edinburgh) are attributable to at least two factors. First, India was self-sufficient in most things, and beer was one of the few British commodities needed. Second, the valuable shipments of silks and spices returning from India more than covered the expenses of travel.


The low shipping rates encouraged brewers to accept the risky gamble. Nevertheless, shipping costs still exceeded 20% of the beer cost; 120 hogsheads of ale bound for the major East Indian markets of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, for example, would cost £753. This price included £540 for the ale, £118 for freight and primage, and £95 for bottles and corks; insurance costs were extra.


Hodgson's Solution


The answer to the great beer problem finally came from a recipe and not an innovation in brewing technology. George Hodgson, brewer at the Bow Brewery in East London, began shipping Hodgson’s India Ale during the 1790s. The ale was a version of his pale ale, which Londoners had been drinking since the mid-1750s. These copper-colored or reddish-bronze beers were called pale ales because they were lighter in color than the popular brown ales, porters and stouts. Hodgson’s pale ales were some of the first beers in the world that were paler than black or brown.


Before the advent of refrigeration and pasteurization, the brewer’s only weapons against spoilage were alcohol and hops. Alcohol provided an unfriendly environment for microbial action, and the isohumulone content of the hops inhibited the growth of Lactobacillus. Thus, high alcohol content and high hopping rates could protect beer from the souring associated with long storage times. Hodgson took his pale ale recipe, increased the hop content considerably, and raised the starting gravity by the addition of extra grain and sugar. Extremely high attenuation resulted in strong ales with high alcohol content.


Hodgson also added dry hops, probably an early version of Kent Goldings, to the casks at the time of priming, which provided a further measure against infection. During priming he conditioned the beer with more sugar than was typical for pale ales. The high priming rate probably helped keep the yeast alive during the long voyage. Although high priming rates might suggest excessive carbonation, leakage from the wooden casks may have offset this effect. In any case a “high state of condition” would have been important to offset large amount of carbon dioxide lost during the primitive bottling process used when the beer arrived in India (India was too warm for bottle conditioning). The result was a very bitter, alcoholic, and sparkling pale ale that could withstand the rigors of travel and shelf life in India. Hodgson’s success became legendary.


Thanks in part to Hodgson’s recipe, the Indian market expanded rapidly. A review of the export numbers emphasizes the recipe’s impact. In 1750, about 1480 barrels* left England for India; in 1775, 1680 barrels were exported. This minor increase of 200 barrels in annual shipments after 25 years was eclipsed by the huge increase in exports over the next 25 years — in 1800, 9000 barrels were exported, an increase of about 7300 barrels in annual shipments. That increase surpasses the entire amount of beer exported to India in the previous 100 years. The success generated by Hodgson’s recipe encouraged other brewers to try to enter the potentially lucrative market.


Hodgson’s success in India, however, added one more obstacle for other brewers’ enterprises. The Circular on Beer Trade to India reported in 1829 that Hodgson controlled the market to India by a number of methods, some of them considered unethical.


The troops on Bengal loved pale ales, and local businesses could have sold more of it except for periodic and huge increases in the price of the imports. The market relied so heavily on Hodgson’s deliveries that he could engage in a certain amount of price fixing. According to the circular, when Hodgson got word that another brewer was shipping ale to India he would flood the market with large quantities of his ale, effectively driving down the selling price. Most brewers attempting to establish a trade lost considerable sums of money. After frightening off a rival in such a fashion, Hodgson would limit the next year’s exports, sending the price skyrocketing and recovering lost profits from the previous year. The rates could swing from 20 rupees per hogshead when Hodgson flooded the market to 200 rupees per hogshead when beer was in short supply.


In the 1820s, Hodgson’s bold efforts to completely dominate the Indian market backfired. First, he began denying importers credit for their purchases, forcing many of the cash-poor suppliers to seek help from other breweries. In addition, Hodgson set up his own import business in India. The Hodgson family had a strong determination to hold on to the market; not only had founder George Hodgson designed the first India Pale Ale, but his son Mark Hodgson played a critical role in establishing the family’s import business on the subcontinent. This import business squeezed out the middle men in India, resulting in more profits — and fewer friends — for Hodgson.


Burton Makes History


A commercial success of this sort was bound to be copied. The Salt, Allsopp, and Bass breweries all claim to have been the first to copy Hodgson’s style. Regardless of who was first, the successful recreation of Hodgson’s recipe led to the ascendency of Burton-on-Trent as the brewing capital of England. The success of the Burton ales provide an important brewing lesson in water quality and characteristics.


Burton’s brewing history extended back to the brewing monasteries of the 1200s. Its reputation for darker styles was later eclipsed by the recognition gained by its pale ales. The popular nut brown ale of the Trent valley began losing local popularity after Allsopp successfully produced its first pale ale in 1822.


Why were Salt, Allsopp, and Bass interested in the Indian market? As a result of the Napoleonic wars, the Burton breweries lost the important and successful Baltic trade in 1807. In 1821, a dinner meeting between the director of the East India Company, Mr. Marjoribanks, and Samuel Allsopp set up events that changed the course of brewing history.


At dinner that fateful night, Samuel Allsopp expressed concern over the state of his business, given the loss of the lucrative Baltic markets. Mr. Marjoribanks alerted Allsopp to the Indian market, of which Allsopp was unaware. Marjoribanks pointed out that India offered “… a trade that can never be lost:[sic] for the climate is too hot for brewing. … We are now dependent upon Hodgson who has given offense to most of the merchants of India. But your Burton ale, so strong and sweet, will not suit our market.” Marjoribanks’ butler provided the men with a bottle of Hodgson’s ale, and Marjoribanks described a market that preferred pale, sparkling ales.


Later, Allsopp presented head brewer and maltster Job Goodhead with a glass of Hodgson’s India Ale. After looking at the beer, Goodhead told Allsopp that he could dry his malt to that color. After tasting the ale Goodhead spat it out; the bitterness probably overwhelmed this man raised on the traditionally sweet beers of the Burton region. Goodhead replicated Hodgson’s India Ale using a tea pot as a pilot mash system, and within one year Allsopp and Bass were challenging Hodgson’s market.


When establishing his place in the Indian market, Allsopp faced many more problems than just matching color, quality, and flavor with Hodgson’s India Ale. Burton brewers had to get their beers to London, the point of departure for most shipments to India. Freight costs for passage on the canals, the major source of transportation, were 60 shilling (£3) per ton. In addition, thieves along the canal often stole spirits, wine, and beer, replacing the stolen beverage with water. If they were to reach London in good condition, shipments needed protection, further adding to the cost.


Another cost involved the purchase of the special hogshead casks and butts* needed for the enterprise. In order to facilitate business transactions and handling and stowage, the casks needed to be uniform in size and shape. Furthermore, these casks had to be built to withstand the rigors of shipping. The new casks required Allsopp to lay out considerable sums of money before the real venture even began. After reaching London the ale had to get by the English excise officers, and once they arrived in India they had to be approved by tasters who could accept or reject any shipment.


In Allsopp’s case, the first news from India was not good. The first consignment ran into trouble with the tasters, and the beer earned only 20 rupees per hogshead while Hodgson received 25 rupees. The second and third consignments reaching India, however, brought 40 rupees per hogshead each. From there, the news got even better. One letter from a Mr. J.C. Bailton stated the following:


With reference to the loss you have sustained in your first shipments, you must have been prepared for that, had you known that market as well as I do: Here almost everything is name, and Hodgson’s has so long stood without a rival that it was a matter of astonishment how your ale could have stood the competition; but that it did is a fact, and I myself was present when a butt of yours fetched 136 rupees, and a butt of Hodgson’s only 80 rupees at a public sale.


Other letters arriving from merchants in India testified that Allsopp’s Ale was the unanimous favorite of the customers. These optimistic reports encouraged Allsopp to increase his efforts in the next shipping season. In that first year he shipped only 34 hogsheads to India, but in his second year he shipped over 300 hogsheads.


The Burton Secret


Like Hodgson’s India Ale, the Burton export ales were sparkling and strong. The Burton beers were very pale for that time, more so than any previous effort, and the Burton export ales also exceeded all previous efforts in bitterness.


The secret to the Burton brewers’ success came from the water, an ingredient often downplayed in beer recipe formulation. The sulfates of the Trent basin helped the Burton beers achieve their clarity and bitterness and allowed the Burton brewers to far exceed Hodgson’s India Ale in clarity, hopping rate, and marketability. The high sulfate content allowed brewers to use hopping rates well beyond that compatible with the carbonate water of London. Sulfates actually change the mouthfeel and perception of bitterness. High sulfate content results in a sharp, clean bitterness, unlike the harsh clinging bitterness of highly hopped beers brewed with water high in carbonates.


Bass’s 19th century export ales were brewed to an original gravity of not less than 1.060 (15 °P). Bass achieved its hop bitterness by using large quantities of Fuggle, Kent Goldling, and imported hops. Several breweries reported using Californian and German hops for up to 50% of the bittering additions. Kettle hopping rates could exceed 3 lb/U.S. bbl, with one-quarter to one-third of this total reserved as finishing hops. Long boiling times, usually >2 h, helped maximize hop utilization and contributed to the physical (protein) stability of the beer. At racking, Kent Goldings were added as dry hops at rates anywhere from 6 oz to 1 lb/UK bbl (1 UK bbl = 36 Imperial gal, or ~43 U.S. gal), adding their special aromatic quality to this highly conditioned ale.


After completing the long voyage, the wooden casks filled with ale would be stillaged and their contents bottled, after which the strong ales could last three months or more. The hardy yeasts produced in the Burton Union fermentation system combined with high rates of priming sugar protected the beer on its stormy voyages and helped give it a long shelf life.


An important issue raised in the history of ale involves the degree to which beer flavor profiles were influenced by the presence of Brettanomyces yeast strains. Stouts, porters, and stock ales were brewed using a secondary fermentation with Brettanomyces. The process of vatting was used successfully to get the appropriate flavor profile from the Brettanomyces. However, Wahl and Henius maintained that vatting for pale ales went out of vogue with the success of the Burton brewers, suggesting that IPAs did not use this process. Chances of sourness from Lactobacillus would have been further reduced by the low final gravities: well-attenuated ales contain insufficient fermentables for the bacteria, or for that matter the finicky Brettanomyces.


IPA in the Home Market


The export ales of Hodgson and the Burton brewers were truly export-only products until 1827, when a ship carrying cargo to India was wrecked in the Irish Sea. The cargo was auctioned, alerting locals to the existence of India Pale Ale. The pale ales became a success in Liverpool, and shortly afterward Londoners were clamoring for these export ales. Although other factors such as changing public tastes probably played a role, the importance of this serendipitous event should not be downplayed. At any rate, the public liked the effervescent pale ales whose clarity, bitterness, and refreshing character set them apart from the sweet, strong, nut brown ales of Burton and the mild ales, porters, and stouts of London and Dublin. IPA became a success in the European market, too, and local imitations were brewed in Norway and even Germany.


The Past 100 Years


A record of the original gravities of beers brewed in the Burton area suggests that by 1880-1900 most exports were of the India Pale Ale variety. A record of Bass products shows gravities between 1.060 and 1.070 for both cask and bottled pale ales released between 1887 and 1901. Bass’s bottled export of 1901 had an original gravity of 1.064, and its bottled White Label had an original gravity of 1.062. In addition, these beers finished at remarkably low terminal gravities; for example, Dog’s Head finished at 1.003 and White Label at 1.007. When reviewing records of British beers for this period, remember that independent contractors bottled the beers, and a product brewed by Bass might turn up on the market under several different labels, though all bearing the Bass triangle.


IPA’s success was not lost on American brewers. Brewers in the northeastern United States brewed pale ales with original gravities between 1.060 and 1.076 during this period and labeled them as India Pale Ale, enabling them to cash in on the lucrative export trade at a time when ale consumption in the United States was declining because of the lager revolution. Ballantine’s IPA can be traced back to the early part of the 20th century when IPAs were still strong in both popularity and alcohol content; it has been preserved through an owner’s idiosyncracies (Ballantine also once brewed an extremely strong “Burton Ale”).


In some ways, ale brewing in the United States remained rather conservative because it was subject to different changes in market tastes and different regulatory pressure from that in Britain. Ales were in decline well before Prohibition; cream ale was invented as a counter to pale lagers. Other ale styles, such as porter, remained truer to their 19th century antecedents.


A different picture emerges when we look at British brewing practices. Recall that 19th century starting gravities were in the 1.060–1.070 range. Today IPA gravities in Britain start as low as 1.040 and seldom run as high as 1.060. The great gravity drop that we see in British ales since the late 19th century are the result of changes in the British taxation system, which effectively penalized high-gravity beers, and a parallel (or ensuing) shift in consumer preference. These changes eventually resulted in so-called “India Pale Ales” that were indistinguishable from ordinary pale ales. In Britain today, IPA is often merely a synonym for best or special bitter.


Modern IPA Brewing Practice


The next installment of “Brewing in Styles” will review the current state of the India Pale Ale style in the United States and will also look at an interesting project in England that recreated a 19th century India Pale Ale. Most important, the article will review critical aspects of brewing India Pale Ales in both modern and traditional variants.

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