Beer Background
Beer Hall at Hawkshead Brewery #2

Searching for the roots of IPA, the beer style that changed the world of brewing

Added: Sunday, December 16th 2012

India Pale Ale is the Icarus of the beer world: in the 19th century, it flew too close to the sun and crashed to earth. But it left an indelible mark, inspiring not only brewers of pale ales in Britain but also European producers of lager beer, who moved from dark to golden versions of the style.

In recent years, Icarus – to mix a metaphor – has risen from the ashes on the back of the world-wide revival of beer. Countless interpretations of IPA can now be found in the post-colonial countries of Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Even the Belgians, who have a sufficient beer culture of their own, have discovered IPA.

The passion for IPA in the U.S., which has spilled over into Double and Imperial versions of the style, along with dubious “Black IPAs”, has spawned a major book on the subject: IPA – Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale by Mitch Steele, Brewmaster at Stone Brewing in Escondido, California (Brewers Publications, $24).

Mitch’s book will fascinate not just beer lovers and historians but also fellow brewers, as it includes a major section on recipes, both historic and modern, that will enable lovers of the style to create their own versions of such revered IPAs as Ballantine’s from yesteryear and Harpoon from today.

The book is the result of three years of painstaking research, including several visits to Britain. Mitch met Steve Wellington in Burton, who has devoted his life to not only brewing Worthington’s White Shield but also saving it from extinction. He also spent time with James McCrorie, who has spent years with the Durden Park Beer Circle in teasing out old recipes and tracing the origins of the style. Over convivial pints in British pubs, he also discussed the development of the style in the 19th century with such beer writers and historians as Pete Brown, Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell and this writer. The end result is a substantial book of 350 pages that should delight beer lovers and, as always with historic styles, raise the odd hackle or two.

Mitch traces the development of brewing in Britain and shows how Burton-on-Trent became a major producer of ales for both domestic consumption and export. When the Burton brewers lost their trade with Russia and the Baltic States during the Napoleonic Wars, they were desperate for new markets and were encouraged by the East India Company, which had a virtual monopoly over trade in the sub-continent, to follow in the footsteps of Hodgson’s brewery in London and develop strong pale ale for India.

The history of Hodgson’s brewery at Bow Bridge in East London is well documented but Mitch avoids the big bang theory that Hodgson “invented” India Pale Ale. Leave aside the fact, gleaned from ancient advertisements, that Hodgson didn’t use the term, preferring just pale ale, Mitch accepts that the beer was a development of October Beer or stock ale. This was a strong beer, aged for months or more, and ideally suited to the passage to India. I agree with this approach but, as none of Hodgson’s recipes survive, I fancy the beer was tweaked for the India trade. After all, a sample of the beer given to Allsopp’s head brewer, Job Goodhead, in Burton was so bitter that he spat it out in disgust. But Goodhead must have been acquainted with October beers and his reaction suggests that Hodgson’s India beer was more heavily hopped to help it withstand the long and tumultuous sea journeys to India.

Mitch describes in exhaustive detail the manner in which Burton IPAs were brewed, with great insight into the malts, hops and yeast used, the special nature of the mineral-rich water and the important contribution made by the Burton Union system of fermentation. He also describes at length the ageing in wood before the beer was shipped to India and then gives Scottish IPAs and Export Ales a well-deserved mention. 

But, from his vantage point in the U.S., it’s Mitch’s insight into the development of IPAs in his own country that will be of particular interest. American versions of the style are not due solely to the modern craft brewing movement. By the mid to late 19th century, a number of American brewers on the east of the country, enthused by the Burton model, were brewing IPAs, which, as in Britain, developed from strong stock ales. The Christian Feigenspan brewery in Newark, New Jersey, for example, had 30 two-storey fermenters and a “Monks Cellar” that held 100-barrel oak vats for ageing IPA for two years. The Frank Jones’ brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, became the biggest ale brewer in the U.S., producing 150,000 barrels a year, ageing its IPA in oak barrels.

IPA and most other ale styles disappeared during Prohibition. The breweries that managed to survive fed Americans a thin diet of lager until the great beer revival got under way in the 1980s. The only major IPA from pre-Prohibition times that was still brewed following repeal was Ballantine’s, a beer so magnificent it made strong men weep, but following many changes of ownership it finally disappeared. But by the 1990s most new-wave American craft brewers had rekindled a passion for the style and from their IPAs there developed what Mitch calls the “hop bombs” of stronger interpretations, such as Double and Imperial, booming with the citrus character of American hops. Mitch goes into enormous detail as he describes the strong IPAs fashioned by Rogue, Stone, Sierra Nevada, Russian River and a host of other craft breweries.

He bravely tackles the thorny question of “Black IPAs” and quotes a late 19th-century British book that records a black pale ale brewed by Bass. I have to confess that, though I have researched IPA and delved into records for some 30 years, I have never come across a black IPA or pale ale brewed in Burton and I agree with the renowned American brewmaster and writer Garrett Oliver who says succinctly on the subject: “Don’t get me started...” As Mitch himself suggests, Black IPAs are in truth just a new branding for imperial porters and stouts.

The final section of the book is devoted to recipes for IPAs both ancient and modern (including Fuller's Bengal Lancer, image below). This will be of immense interest to brewers but will also fascinate those who don’t make beer but who wish to learn in depth about the malts and hops used to make a vast array of IPAs. There’s even a recipe for Ballantine’s and any brewer who cares to make a batch will have in me a friend for life.

Mitch Steele’s book is awesome, involving dedicated research allied to great passion for the style. His book makes a substantial contribution to the growing library dedicated to the history and culture of the world’s favourite beverage.

*The book is available from Amazon or from Brewers Publications:

IPA book
Bengal Lancer