What Exactly is an IPA?

Over the last five to ten years we’ve seen the return of ales and beers to pubs, dethroning lagers as the top contender of the public house scene. Bitters, stouts and porters are all at the forefront of the bar but arguably none has become as popular as the India Pale Ale, more commonly known as the IPA. It’s light and hoppy taste seems to have won over customers both young and old, but what exactly is it? And where does it come from? Let’s dive into the history of this fascinating drink and discover just what is going on with the IPA.

It may seem obvious why the pale ale is called that due to its visually lighter tone to that of a bitter, a porter or a stout but this isn’t the sole reason it was first called that. The name actually stems from the pale malt used to make the drink, naturally this then help lends to its colour. Pale malt, or more specifically coke-fired malt, produces less roasting and smoking of the barley during the malting process and subsequently creates a much paler beer. The “India” part of the name comes from its popularity amongst traders in the East India Company posted in India towards the late 18th Century.

One of the earliest known breweries to export their beer from the UK to India was the Bow Brewery owned by George Hodgson. His brewery became very popular with the East India Company, the strongly hopped beers were said to have benefited greatly from the voyage to India. Interestingly these beers would have tasted very different to similar hoppy beers we drink today, the rocking of the ships and time kept cellared before serving would have given the drink a taste almost halfway between beer and wine. Today strongly hopped ales would have then been considered nowhere near ready for consumption.

In the early 19th century Bow Brewery fell into the control of Hodgson’s son, the way in which he ran the company supposedly didn’t sit well with the traders, likely due to his tighter leash on the company’s credit line. Fortunately for these traders several breweries in Burton upon Trent had recently lost their trade contracts with Russia due to the Tsars ban on the trade and they were eager to replace these. Companies like Allsopp brewery, then later the Bass and Salt breweries saw this as an opportunity and at the request of the East India Company sent over similar strongly hopped ales. Burton upon Trent’s brewing is renowned worldwide thanks to its hard water. It was likely because of this that they were able to create a higher standard of pale ale which they then shipped to India, these drinks were much preferred by the customers. These strongly hopped versions of the pale ale proved so popular that it wasn’t long until the drink was named the India Pale Ale. The drink later became popular at home and well, the rest is history.