You Only Think You Know the History of the IPA

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So you love IPAs — join the club. The IPA has become the dominant form of craft beer in America, and, increasingly, throughout the world. But tell us, what’s your preference: English or American? Wet-hopped or dry? imperial or session? Galaxy or Mosaic hops? The point being, you don’t know as much about the most popular style in America as you think. Enter Josh Bernstein’s comprehensive new book, Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Craft Beer. Bernstein, a long-time beer-focused contributor to Men’s Journal, runs through the many IPA styles, regional interpretations, and the complete history of the hop-forward brew. Here, excerpted from his book, is a sample of Bernstein’s informed take as he runs through the oft-told story of the IPA’s birth in India under British brewers — a story that, it turns out, is completely wrong. –Tyghe Trimble

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Let’s begin by shooting a hop-tipped arrow straight through the misshapen heart of a misconception. If you fancy IPAs, you no doubt have heard that they originated in the heady days of the British Empire. To safeguard their beers during long, hot, roiling voyages to India, brewers preserved their ales with elephantine amounts of hops. On the subcontinent, the bitter ales wet thirsty soldiers’ whistles, becoming the swig of colonial India, then Britain, and eventually the world. Right?

False. It’s the Tooth Fairy masquerading as truth.

Yes, bittered ale went to India, but so did the everyman’s hop-rocked porter. Affluent Europeans, high-ranking officers, and civil servants all drank highly hopped pale ales, and huge hop charges were old news by then anyway. Brewers shipping beer to India and the Caribbean were hopping mad by the 1760s.

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Pale ales appeared in the seventeenth century as the advent of kilns fueled by coke—a cleaner kind of coal—let maltsters produce paler malts. As the years poured on and exports intensified, so did hopping, leading to touts for “pale ale prepared for the East and West India climate.” (Let’s pause here to acknowledge a likely antecedent: October beer, an eighteenth-century favorite of the landed gentry. The pale, well-hopped beer was brewed in the fall, intended to mature on country estates for several years.)

Our tale really takes root in Burton-on-Trent, a small town in the West Midlands of England. Using the proceeds from selling his ale transportation business, William Bass established his eponymous brewery there in 1777.

In time, Bass and other brewers there earned a reputation for their Burton Pale Ale, strong, sweetish, and lighter than the prevailing brown ales and porters. Burton-on-Trent brewers did brisk trade with Russia and other Baltic nations until 1822, when war and embargoes prompted Russia to ban British imports, including ale.

The brewers needed an economic lifeline, and the East India Company threw it to them. Among other goods, the EIC had been boating the hoppy pale ales made by George Hodgson’s Bow Brewery of London to India. The arrangement worked just fine—until the money-hungry Hodgson puppet-mastered supply, creating fake shortages and fluctuating prices to undercut competition or increase profits. When Hodgson tried creating his own importing business, the EIC tapped Burton-on-Trent breweries to make the pale, bittered beer.

Affected by the area’s plentiful gypsum deposits, Burton water’s heightened levels of calcium and sulfates enhanced beer clarity, dried it out, and honed its bitterness. Bass, Allsopp, and other Burton brewers refined the mash bill, and around the 1840s East India pale ales marched headlong into history.

But that of course was just the beginning.

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A Short History of IPAs

The India pale ale-which reportedly first saw print in an 1835 issue of the Liverpool Mercury-had become big business overseas and. to a lesser extent, in Britain. {Domestic IPAs had lower hopping rates because brewers needed smaller preservative hop loads for intranational trips.) But the beer didn’t leap to global domination. IPA’s rise sits on the same timeline as the pilsner, the Czech lager that upended the way the world drank and nearly drove the IPA into the past.

Clear, crisp, and refreshing, the pilsner bubbled worldwide, but in Britain-according to Mitch Steele in his IPA treatise-the pilsner had a reputation for being a “ladies’ drink.” To compete. British brewers in the late 1800s started making lower-alcohol “running ales” served fresh and in casks brimming with live yeast. IPA popularity declined, hastened by ABV taxes and the temperance movement. As a result, the brewing recipe grew weaker and less lavishly hopped.

Stateside, though, prominent northeastern brewers—including C. H. Evans in New York’s Hudson Vally; the Frank jones Brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Ballantine in Newark, New Jersey—continued the IPA tradition. They used Burton techniques, such as lengthy ripening in wood, and developed a domestic market … that Prohibition nearly obliterated. After the failed experiment ended, so did all the traditional IPA breweries, except Ballantine. They carried the IPA torch until 1972, when Falstaff Brewing bought Ballantine and dulled its IPA recipe. Pabst bought Falstaff in 1985 and discontinued the Ballantine IPA in 1996.

When the American craft beer movement first fizzed to life in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the landscape was brimming with cold, yellow lagers. To set themselves apart, Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada, and other early independent breweries used the then-new Cascade hop-floral, citrusy, and unlike anything else. Anchor Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale broke new gustatory ground (although rumor holds that Sierra Nevada’s yeast strain descended from Ballantine yeast). Bitterness and flavor were taking root.

In 1989, the Great American Beer Festival awarded its first medals in the IPA category, and by the late 1990s IPAs became growth engines for brewers nationwide, from Portland, Oregon’s BridgePort to Brooklyn Brewery. Newly developed hop varieties, such as the citrusy Centennial and the piney Simcoe, unlocked exhilarating realms of aroma and flavor. To curry attention, brewers sent ABV and IBU counts skyward in their double and triple lPAs. Experimentation didn’t dead-end there. The unstoppable IPA now serves as an all-purpose flavor delivery vehicle, tweaked with wild yeast, heaped with wheat, filled with citrus, or aged in ex-bourbon barrels. Led by West Coast breweries, the bitter assault became a resounding triumph. According to research company IRI, IPA sales accounted for nearly 30 percent of the money spent on craft beer in 2015.

The onetime import has become an export. American-style IPAs are awakening taste buds in Buenos Aires, Barcelona, and Beijing. Hops, recipes, and brewing advice all lie within the click of a button. Beer trading allows IPAs to reach locales that normal distribution channels don’t. Increased international travel brings drinkers to far-flung breweries, where a single sip can spark inspiration and a business plan. In this new beginning, brewers worldwide are molding the formula to suit their own climates and cultures. For example: Great Leap Brewing in China flavors their Ghost General Wheat IPA with Tsingtao Flower hops, while Italy’s BrewFist suffuses its Space IPA with grape must. Malleable and ever-changing, the IPA has become a prize that can be created and re-created anywhere in the world, and it continues to spread like a fever that everyone wants to catch.

Excerpted from Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Craft Beer by Josh Bernstein. 

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