The History of India Pale Ale & The War on Warm Beer

Words: Crush

If you love IPA and can’t stand the taste of warm beer, you might have more in common with 18th-century British colonials than you think – minus the bludgeoning and land appropriation, of course. The India Pale Ale, born in England, took the concept of Pale Ale and cranked up the hops to eleven, resulting in a bolder, more hop-forward beer with a higher alcohol content. But there’s more to this craft beer than its characteristic hoppy and citrusy taste. Pour one out as we learn about the history of India Pale Ale…

The Origins of India Pale Ale

During the 18th century, the British Empire ships ruled the waves and dominated global trade routes. British troops stationed in India sought solace under the scorching sun, longing for a taste of home – their beloved English beer. But there was a catch: beer back then didn’t fare well on long sea voyages – it went all fizzy and flat.

In those days, the British East India Company (EIC) held sway over trade and colonisation, connecting the far reaches of the Empire. The EIC’s headquarters in India became a hub of activity, but the weather conditions there posed a challenge for brewing beer. The tropical heat and humidity made traditional brewing difficult, prompting the need for an ingenious solution to quench the thirst of the troops.

Image source: Getty/De Agostini Picture Library

Determined to keep their sailors happy, the Brits back home decided to create a beer that could endure the long journey from England to India. The beer of choice at the time was Porter – a dark and robust brew with rich malt flavours. But it fell short at sea, turning flat and lifeless under the tropical sun, and was better suited for colder London weather.

How the Brits Boycotted Warm Beer

The brewers sought to enhance the beer’s resilience. They added extra hops, acting as natural preservatives, to keep the brew fresh and flavourful during the weeks-long voyage. Additionally, they boosted the alcohol content, providing the beer with a sturdier backbone to withstand the choppy waters and emerge victorious on distant shores.

By the time the beer was ready to be shipped to far-off destinations like India, it was the month of October. Hence, it earned the moniker ‘October beer’…

The result of their craftsmanship was ‘pale ale as prepared for India,’ lovingly known as ‘India Pale Ale’ or ‘IPA’. Interestingly, IPA was first called ‘October beer’ due to its brewing and shipping schedule. In the 18th century, when the beer was first crafted, it was brewed in the early months of the year, particularly in March. The beer was then aged and stored in barrels for several months to allow the flavours to develop and mature.

By the time the beer was ready to be shipped to far-off destinations like India, it was the month of October. Hence, it earned the moniker ‘October beer’ among the brewers and merchants of the time. As the beer gained popularity and became synonymous with the British troops stationed in India, it later became known as ‘India Pale Ale’, reflecting its connection to the subcontinent. This hop-forward and robust brew became the answer to the troops’ yearning for a taste of home on foreign soil.

The Rise of IPA & Craft Beer

As IPA’s popularity soared, London brewer George Hodgson seized a golden opportunity. In 1822, he cunningly secured a monopoly contract with the EIC, granting him exclusive rights to supply beer to India. This marked a significant turning point in the history of IPA, as Hodgson’s business acumen helped elevate the brew’s status and expand its reach.

As the years passed, the popularity of India Pale Ale waned in its homeland. Changing tastes and trends in England led to a decline in demand for the hop-forward brew. Many traditional breweries shifted their focus to other beer styles, leaving IPA in the shadows.

According to Statista, the retail dollar value of craft beer in the United States amounted to 28.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2022.

However, across the Atlantic, a hoppy revolution was brewing. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, America’s craft beer scene took off. Breweries embraced IPA with fervour, experimenting with different hop varieties, brewing techniques and flavour combinations. West Coast IPAs emerged with their bold piney and citrusy notes, while New England IPAs delighted with their hazy appearance and tropical fruit flavours.

The IPA boom in America reinvigorated interest in the classic beer style and inspired brewers worldwide to embrace the trend. It was a rebellion against the bland, mass-produced swill that dominated the beer landscape then. Craft brewers broke free from the corporate clutches, bringing back old brewing techniques and introducing creative new flavours. The movement has increased since, with more people brewing in garages or starting their own craft breweries.

According to Statista, the retail dollar value of craft beer in the United States amounted to 28.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2022. Locally, approximately 215 craft breweries are currently operating, according to the Craft Brewers Association of South Africa (CBASA). Today, IPA remains one of the most sought-after and beloved beer styles globally.

Want more? Dive into the world of craft beer with this guide.

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