India Pale Ales are fast becoming the most popular style of craft beer in America. The moniker IPA is now so ubiquitous that many customers at our brewpub erroneously refer to any kind of pale ale we have as IPA! There is good reason for this fame: not only are modern American IPAs among the worlds most flavorful beer styles, their history is just as rich and interesting as their taste.
Customers at a Fullers pub in London. Photo by the author
India Pale Ales were originally brewed in England for export to India at the end of the 18th century. Over the years, the style has evolved and even spawned a subspecies or three. Despite this diversification, beers bearing the moniker IPA still share a couple of commonalities: they tend to be deep gold to medium copper in color and hop character is more assertive than malt.
That is where the similarities end and the confusion starts. Beers labeled IPA range from low alcohol content and hop character all the way up to high-strength hop extravaganzas. A brief look at the history of this style will reveal why such disparity now exists. (if this were a cheesy movie, wed now be seeing the wavy lines indicative of a flashback
The late 18th century presented England with several vexing issues. While the upstarts in the North American colonies were certainly worthy of attention, there were two other matters of even greater importance: how to get beer to the colony in India and supply His Majestys sailors during the voyage.
Even today, beer does not travel well. Motion and heat speed the staling of beers brewed using the most modern techniques and equipment. 250 years ago, it was practically impossible to ship beer long distances and end up with a palatable product at the receiving port.
The trip to India was long and brutal; down the Atlantic through tropical heat, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back north into the tropics. (There was no Suez Canal until 1869, and even then it was still a very long, hot journey.) The first English beers arriving in India, porters from London, were usually sour, flat, and unfit for sale. Sailors on station in warm waters resorted to rum, theoretically diluted with water and flavored with citrus, because beer could not keep.
One idea to provide sailors with beer was to brew on ships using condensed wort extracts, just like some modern home brewers. Unfortunately, the conditions in tropical seas made it difficult to produce palatable beers for the sailors. Some London brewers tried to bottle flat porter and export it to India, hoping that the beer would condition on the journey. This method met little success.
At the end of the 18th century, an enterprising brewer named Hodgson, motivated by the wide-open Indian beer market, solved the problem. He invented a new style of beer, brewing it to a high alcohol level and using more hops than any previous beers. While there is not enough alcohol in any beer to offer serious protection from microorganisms, having more of it will certainly not hurt. The real genius of his recipe is in the hops.
High hop levels can preserve a beers flavor in two ways: they have a limited ability to protect beer from spoilage by some microorganisms, and, more importantly, their bitterness can mask stale flavors. While the beer arriving in India would certainly have suffered from oxidative staling during the long voyage, it could still taste acceptable because of the masking effect of alcohol and hops.
Hodgsons export beer was a success, and he worked hard to maintain his monopoly on the Indian beer trade. Eventually, other brewers, notably Bass and Allsop, managed to begin trading their own versions of IPA in India, and some brewers began producing a somewhat more subtle version of IPA for the domestic market. Pale ale was thus born from IPA.
The original English IPAs were strong, very hoppy beers, weighing in at about 7-10% ABV and estimated by modern science to contain an enormous 100 International Bitterness Units (IBU) of isomerized alpha acid (the hop substance that makes beer bitter). Today, some English IPAs are less than 4% ABV! Bass Ale, which declares itself an IPA in small letters on its label, illustrates the general trend of English IPAs toward lower alcohol and hop rates. Even when tasted fresh on cask in its native land, Bass is a relatively subtle brew, with only hints of English hops in the nose and a finish that leans toward bitterness without ever getting too near the edge.
So how is it that modern English IPAs became mere shadows of their ancestors? A big part of the answer can be found within the English beer taxation system. Prior to 1880, brewers paid tax based upon the raw materials they used. The Free Mash Tun Act changed this to a system in which tax is paid on wort produced, and the amount of tax paid is dependent on the specific gravity, or alcohol potential, of the wort. Higher strength worts cost more to make, and were taxed disproportionately more than weak worts, so English brewers began to make weaker beers.
Early American IPAs, from the 19th century, where more like the English originals in that they were both alcoholic and hoppy. The original C.H. Evans Brewing Company of Hudson, NY, brewed an IPA as their flagship. This beer was over 8% alcohol and very well-hopped with local and English hops.
After Prohibition in the U.S., lighter-tasting lagers supplanted ales as the beers of choice for the vast majority of drinkers. A few breweries, such as Balantine, continued to produce ales, although these were actually quite subtle compared to the rich, flavorful beers of modern America.
The craft brewing revolution gave American beer drinkers something they had not seen since the early years of the 20th century: a variety of beers that actually taste different from each other! People began to realize that there is a universe of beer styles awaiting exploration, and the craft brewers responded by inventing new styles and reintroducing beers lost to history, often with a distinguishing American edge. Thus was a new breed of IPA born!
Most of the IPAs brewed in America today use copious amounts of bold American-grown hops. Popular varieties include Centennial, Challenger, and the citrusy Cascade (which, in my opinion, has become monotonously omnipresent). American IPAs range from about 5% ABV (considered somewhat lame by most beer geeks) to monster beers over 10% ABV. Bitterness levels share a similarly broad range, with the highest IBU beers testing the limits of how much isomerized alpha acid can actually dissolve in wort!
Most of these IPAs are dry-hopped, like their English ancestors were. This means that an extra dose of hops is added to the young beer after fermentation. This adds no bitterness to the brew, but imparts a farm-fresh hop aroma that erudite drinkers expect from the style.
The following homebrew recipe will yield an IPA of about 7.5% ABV and 60 IBUs. Humans cannot really discern bitterness differences much beyond 60 IBUs, so to use more hops is sort of a waste. I prefer my IPA around 7% ABV so that I can enjoy two pints if the mood strikes; stronger beers lack utility.
Use the freshest hops you can find, especially for late kettle and dry-hop additions; pellets keep far better than whole flowers or plugs, and will usually yield superior results. Malt, while second to the hops, is critical to a great IPA. You need the balancing sweetness and toasty, caramel flavors to produce a beer that invites a second sip.
India Pale Ale, American Style
Batch size: 5 gallons
Original Gravity: about 1.074
Pale Ale malt (your favorite brand) 70%
Weyermann Light Munich Malt, 20%
Weyermann Caramunich Type 1, 10%
Extract brewers: substitute 10 pounds of your favorite light, dry malt extract for the pale and Munich malts, and steep 1.5 pounds of Caramunich 2 in the brew water.
Start of boil:
1.34 ounces Horizon at 10% alpha acid (3.8g alpha/5 gallons)
10 minutes from end of boil:
2 ounces Crystal
End of boil:
2 ounces Crystal
Dry hop (post fermentation):
2-4 ounces blend of Crystal and Amarillo