Chances are, if you’re an American beer drinker – and even if you’re not – you’ve had that glorious, hoppy alcoholic beverage known as India Pale Ale. Among other impressive statistics, India Pale Ale (or IPA for short) holds the distinct honor of being my absolute favorite type of beer of all time. Prestigious stuff, right?
Until three days ago, however, I had no idea where IPA was invented (hint: it’s not India) or what its intriguing backstory is. So pour yourself a cold pint and buckle up, friend, because we’re about to steamroll through 175 years of history in under 500 words.
A Beer Drinker’s History of IPA in 500 Words or Less
Contrary to its name, IPA was created in Britain, not anywhere on the Indian subcontinent. Much like the cloudiness of wheat beers, though, the rest of IPA’s history is a little murky.
The most popular version of the history of IPA – and therefore, the one I’ll tell, since dead men tell no tales – goes like this. Let’s pretend you’re a spirited British sailor who’s been stationed in India in the 18th century. As a boozehound, you’re tired of drinking dark, lukewarm porter, which is great for rainy winter days in cold climates but unfit for India’s sweaty, tropical heat.
Enter George Hodgson, a London brewer whose Bow Brewery beers were popular with East India Company traders. Hodgson’s “October ale,” a heavily hopped beer, actually survived the six-month journey to India aboard these ships… and became even tastier in the process. Think of it as aging like a fine red wine.
These early IPA prototypes wouldn’t have resembled the hop bombs we’re used to today, however. They were only slightly higher in alcohol compared to other beers brewed at the time and wouldn’t have been considered strong ales.
Over time, Hodgson got too big for his britches. Competitors swooped in to create replicas that evolved into weaker pale ales. Tonic water became available in 1858; paired with gin, it made a refreshing drink that warded off malaria. Perhaps the death knell was industrial refrigeration, which made it possible to brew lighter, crisper beers year round.
As a result, the IPA fell from grace; lager ultimately replaced it as the drink of choice. That is, until Americans “rediscovered” IPAs, and craft brewing, in the 1970s. San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery released “Our Special Ale” (now known as Liberty Ale) in 1975, qualifying it as the forerunner of modern American IPAs.
Being American, though, we tend to go big or go home, so we kept going. Double IPA with an ABV of over 7.5%? Sure. Triple IPA? You betcha. Quadruple IPA? Well… wait. Are these beers even IPAs anymore? Today’s India Pale Ales are becoming like Barry Bonds: hopped up on freakin’ steroids.
Whether you love contemporary IPAs or loathe them, one thing’s for certain: they’re not disappearing from the global stage any time soon. So next time you’re out having a beer, clink your glasses together in honor of those thirsty sailors. After all, you never know what will influence what’s in your beer!