India Pale Ales (IPA) are arguably the icon of craft brewing, almost single-handedly fueling the revival of craft beers. While IPAs now hold a steadfast position in the craft beer world, this wasn't always the case. The hoppy beer style experienced a long, long period of disfavor before its recent invention.
There is no official documentation on the history of IPAs. Accordingly, its history is based on speculation from indirect information. We've done our best to cull it together into a cohesive story. So perhaps the title of this post is best noted as, "History of IPA Beers—IMHO"
To understand the history of IPA beers, first look to the (oft controversial, but undoubtedly interesting) history of East India Company, known as EIC.
Established in 1600, EIC was a privately-owned trading company that sought to import spices, textiles and other luxury goods to Britain from South Asia, primarily—well, India.
The company grew rapidly, profiting from monopolistic conditions: EIC is said to have controlled 50% of world trade at its peak. (Imagine having that kind of monopoly today!)
EIC's success allowed them to expand beyond trade. The company gained control of foreign territories, amassing private armies and serving as agents of British imperialism. Over time, a sizeable British community steadily began to grow in India.
First comes community, then comes beer
Back in 18th Century East London, a brewer named George Hodgson was brewing and selling beer to local workers. His brewery, Bow Brewery, was serendipitously located near Blackwell, where EIC's docks were located. The hopped-up pale ale not only kept well, but also tasted great in the Indian climate. His beers were supplied by EIC to the British community in India.
Bow Brewery and EIC's docks (image source: Port Cities London)
Contrary to popular belief, there is no proof that Hodgson was the first to brew a hoppy pale ale or that porters (the most popular beer in London at the time) did not hold up in long voyages.
What Hodgson did accomplish, though, was the widespread commercialization of pale ales in India.
Bombay Grab, situated at 246 Bow Road. In 1817, the pub became the brewery tap for Hodgson’s Brewery.
The area where Bow Brewery once stood, Bromley-by-Bow, has gone through rapid development. This area is sandwiched between new developments such as the Olympic Park and Canary Wharf (image source: The Urban Adventures of Keitei)
So, why the name 'India Pale Ale'?
Over time, EIC gradually lost its grip on the Indian market and Bow Brewery met a similar fate. Two brewers based in Burton-on-Trent named Allsopp and Bass took this opportunity to increase their market share.
It is said that the water from Burton-on-Trent was more fit for pale ales relative to the water from London. The hard water was able to produce a sharper bitterness. On top of that, Allsop and Bass both actively engaged in continuous R&D to develop new ingredients and techniques and marketed well. Not unlike many of the successful craft brewers today.
While competition for the beer market in India continued, several breweries (including Bow Brewery as well as Bass and Allsop) started to sell their pale ales to returning expats. While the pale ale originated from Britain, it was re-branded as an Indian Pale Ale to bestow an exotic image.
Allsopp's IPA Logo (image source: Barclay Perkins)
IPAs remained popular through the 19th Century, but gradually lost its demand as substitutes—such as lagers and cocktails—gained prevalence. As a result, IPAs were largely forgotten until the end of the 20th Century when American craft brewers started to experiment with pale ales once again.
Brewers such as Anchor, Ballantine’s, and Bert Grant’s are typically credited with initially reviving the style. Other brewers, such as Sierra Nevada, Stone, and Harpoon, then pushed the reinvented IPAs beyond the world of obscure beers by creating a specific American style IPA beer. These American IPAs are slightly different from English IPAs in that brewers tend to aggressively hop their beers with American hops.
These days, IPAs have evolved into new sub styles, such as Imperial IPAs, West Coast IPAs and East Coast IPAs. Regardless of formalities, IPAs not only taste good, but also symbolize the pioneering spirit to discover the biggest flavors.
Ready for a drink? Browse our selection of IPA style beers.