Myths are a great part of the human existence. They can be found in almost every culture and usually play a role in teaching social norms, moral boundaries and precious life lessons. Sometimes they are also just made up answers to questions where the real answer is unknown or boring. Since alcohol is inextricably linked to human existence there is no surprise that people have been crafting beer myths for centuries and we proudly continue to do it today. There is a fine style of beer out there that is enjoyed by millions around the globe: the India Pale Ale, otherwise known as the IPA. The IPA is an improvisation on the Pale Ale, which is traditionally lighter in color and body because it is made from Pale Malts. It is also sparingly hopped, giving the beer a lighter flavor.
The IPA is a beer that is made with the same pale malts but brewed with a higher yield of hops giving it a much more bitter flavor. The bitter taste can range from being coppery to floral and all the way to citrus, reminiscent to a grapefruit. However the taste range was not always as diverse.
The story starts all the way back in 18th century England. The English Empire was flourishing in trade around the globe, from America to India. Englishmen were ferried to far off places in search of new merchandise to trade and new fortunes to make. Being in places as far away as China, however, was hard for the average Englishmen and he often missed the comforts of home. Especially the beer. To keep their merchants and foreign occupiers happy, England started shipping their world famous ales and porters to far off places.
Unfortunately what arrived was stale, skunked and undrinkable. Distraught and destroyed the English merchants, soldiers, generals and statesmen wondered if this was to be their fate. No beer? NO BEER? Is it even worth running a grand empire of untold wealth, power and fortune if you can’t even toast your successes with a native brew? Obviously not. Hell, if you said you’d give me 10 million dollars but I couldn’t have another beer for the rest of my life, I’d have to go with the beer. I mean, what would I buy with the money if not more beer?
Fortunately England’s best brewers were on the job. From London to the Liverpool, from Oxfordshire to York brewers were trying to decipher the mystery of how to get good English Ale to the far reaches of the Queen’s Empire. Finally they figured it out! Eureka! Nature’s preservatives can help! Add more hops! Hops, flowering vine plants with a bitter flavor, contain natural acids that act as preservatives. Alcohol is also a preservative and, throughout its many forms, is used to clean wounds, sterilize instruments and kill harmful bacteria, mold and virus. This has to work!
Surely enough, six months and a trip around Africa later, a bitter pale ale, containing more alcohol than its predecessor, arrives in India where it thrives among the Englishmen and Indian natives alike and right there, the IPA is born.
What a great story. A tale of beer—uh, I mean sheer determination, human’s overcoming the odd’s that nature throws at them to pursue an indulgence that is rightful to human existence. Except it’s probably not true. Nope, not at all. A fanciful tale that gives us answers to the question of how an IPA was initially created, but ultimately it has little truth to it.
The truth is that beer-brewing recipes have always been tinkered and experimented with, fulfilling the quest by any chef or brewer to develop new and invigorating tastes. The India Pale Ale originated in 18th century England but was not the result of beer spoiling due to long travel, rather the success of new taste on the familiar pale ale in a new market.
A man named George Hodgson is credited with brewing the first India Pale Ale, however it was initially called an October Pale Ale. His October Pale Ale, or October Beer, was brewed with more hops, making it slightly more bitter than it’s Pale Ale cousins. After brewing it was meant to cellar, or keep in a cask in a cellar at constant temperature, for two years. When done cellaring it was mostly drank by ‘landed’ classes, or classes of people who owned land. After awhile the taste spread and other breweries became interested in brewing a beer akin to the October Beer of Hodgson. The October Beer was so successful that the East India Company sent several shipments to India where it flourished.
At some point Hodgson lost his brewery and the October Beer was no more. The English had grown so accustomed to drinking the beer that they cried for Hodgson’s India Pale Ale. The name here referred to the October being a popular export to India but became the commonly used name for the style. Several breweries, including Bass, took up brewing Hodgson’s hoppy brew to quench Europe (and India’s) thirsty demand. The East India Company once again began exporting the beer to India, where it continued to flourish among customers, and the name India Pale Ale stuck.
There are records that indicated beers were being brewed as IPA’s throughout England by the mid-1800s and with IPA labels in the Americas right before the turn of the century. The style continued to increase in hoppiness throughout the years and became much hoppier than porters or any other ale.
Looking back on the myth, there are shrouds of truth that people still hang on to. For example, the IPA was rumored to have “benefitted exceptionally from the conditions of the voyage.” This is probably due to the temperature and lack of light where the casks were held in the hull of the ship. This probably turned into the part of myth where, due to the hardships of the voyage more hops and alcohol were required as preservatives and more time for fermentation elapsed, rather than the voyage itself accentuating the tastes of the brew.
Others still claim that regular beer would have spoiled on such a trip without the extra preservatives, but it is also documented that many porters and ales made it to India in great condition and the hoppier pale ale was exactly what Southeast Asia wanted.
Sorry that the story may not be as exciting as you thought. Successful business and marketing ideas are not always the most exhilarating tales but I think it’s kind of cool that an IPA wasn’t an accident. It’s what brewers and beer drinkers wanted, planned and intentionally created. It has a kind of Free Will ring to it, rather than a happenstance theme. If it was just luck then there was a chance that it would have never happened at all and I frankly don’t think I could survive in a world without IPA’s. Even if you offered me 10 million dollars.