I was recently having dinner at my favourite restaurant in Jerusalem. Unbeknownst to me, it was also International IPA Day. Our bartender told us we should celebrate (twist my arm!) with a local Israeli IPA. He also proceeded to give me a short history lesson on IPAs, telling me we were celebrating the first shipment of beers brewed in India, destined for Britain. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he had his story wrong.
India Pale Ale was not originally brewed in India; it was brewed in Britain, to be sent to India. It was brewed by British brewers for their compatriots at the front lines of the colony. As you know, shipping beer from Britain to India would have been a difficult task in the late 1700s. Beer would have to make its way across the equator and around the horn of Africa before arriving in India—four months later.
Refrigeration was hard to come by and India is not exactly a cool climate, and hence, not a great spot to store beer for any length of time. Fresh beer needs to be kept at cool temperatures because most beers at the time were infested with wild yeasts that would mostly go unnoticed if the beer was served fresh (as it was in Britain). But these wild yeasts would take a nasty toll on beer that had to spend months in transit across warm climates. The product was pretty much doomed to spoil. Even if it didn’t spoil en route, it would go bad shortly upon arrival. But failure often leads to innovation, and this story is no different. George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery in East London made two key modifications to the British Pale Ale to help it survive the journey:
- He cranked up the hop additions to take advantage of the preservative qualities of hop acids. The result would become something we’re all quite familiar with as craft beer lovers: a very bitter beer.
- He reduced the gravity (ratio of fermentable sugars) to achieve a higher rate of fermentation by the yeast while leaving less residual sugar that could otherwise attract spoilage organisms. In other words, it was fermented to the point of being devoid of all sweetness—or what we would call dry.
Often lost in the story of what makes an IPA such an attractive beer, is how Hodgson managed to create a bitter, flavourful ale that also sported a light colour, despite its high gravity levels. India Pale Ale might have looked light and delicate, but it packed a hoppy, boozy punch.
There were other beer innovations happening at the same time, that would help the IPA gain popularity. Until now, beer was served in opaque vessels. But just as the IPA was coming onto the scene, a heavy British tax on glass was removed. And with it came the widespread availability of glass bottles and drinking glasses—perfect vessels for this light ale to literally shine through. For a while, English IPAs were in their heyday. A confluence of events and before you know it, shipments of IPAs to India grew by 10x, a growth rate all startups would die for today. And by the mid 1800s, British brewers were successfully selling IPAs to the domestic market, where the style became a commercial hit.
I’ve deliberately separated the English IPA from its American cousin—they are two distinct beer styles, even if they share common characteristics. North American readers will know American IPAs quite well—most of us fell in love with craft beer because of American IPAs, with their fragrant hoppy aromas of pine, citrus, or flowers. But while American IPAs are defined by their hop intensity, English IPAs, much like British bitters, call for a balance of hop and malt such that the complexity of the malt does not get overpowered by the hops. English IPAs have a bit more caramel and toffee flavour characteristics that most North Americans would not necessarily expect in an IPA. Even the hop flavours differ. Whereas American IPAs use bright, citrusy hops, their English counterparts rely on spicier, earthier, more subtle versions. Oh, and there’s one more defining characteristic of English IPAs: a touch of sulphur in the aroma. That’s because English pale ales (including IPAs), were born out of Burton, which sits atop gypsum beds. That’s why many home brew recipes include gypsum as an added ingredient. I don’t always use it, but when I do, it certainly adds a nice touch to the beer.
Notable commercial examples
- Belhaven Twisted Thistle. Weighing in at 6.1%, this is stronger than you might expect from an English IPA. It also uses hops more traditionally aligned with American IPAs (Challenger and Cascade). According to Jeff Alworth, you could mistaken this one for a pilsner, with its pale golden colour. But the malt tannins, sharpness of hops and creamy texture remind you that this is not a pilsner.
- Meantime IPA. With an ABV of 7.5%, you could mistaken this as an American IPA. But it’s a little more subdued in flavour (i.e., balanced) than its American counterparts. Use of Fuggle, East Kent and Golding hops keep the beer distinctively in the British camp.
- Harpoon IPA. While this is an American beer, it is nonetheless an interpretation an English IPA using American-grown hops and malt. This is the lightest beer on our list, coming in at 5.9%. This brewery behind this beer takes great pride ensuring no one ingredient overpowers another. It’s deliberately balanced, making it typically British with its sturdy malt backbone.
Make your own
Alright, enough reading! Time to get brewing. This English India Pale Ale will give you a solid start in the style. Use it as a baseline and adapt it to make it your own. You may want to experiment with more hops or adding gypsum to the water to give it an authentic taste.