The IPA Myth


There was some discussion on my last myth post about the origin of IPA’s. Due to my lack of Internet at work I’m not able to pool all the resources I want for this article so there may be a further elaboration on this later in the week. Here in the US the origin seems to vary slightly depending on who your talking to, but here’s the basic rundown taken from the North American Brewers Association.

In the late 1700’s Hogdson was the most popular ale brewer in London. With easy access to shipping from the capital, Hogdson was in position to supply beer to homesick English colonists around the world. Of these, none felt so removed, nor thirsted more for the pleasures of English breweries, than the troops garrisoned on the sub-continent of India. Hogdson rightly believed it a huge market waiting to be tapped, but how could beer survive the trip around Africa?

Hogdson used three brewing methods to ensure his ale weathered the journey. First, he knew hops were a natural preservative. Indeed, it was this property that first motivated brewers to use hops. Hogdson reckoned an increased hopping rate would help in transit. Next, he took advantage of another natural preservative in beer, and he brewed one with an exaggerated level of alcohol. Finally, he used abundant dry hopping as an additional preservative, and he rightly thought it wouldn’t harm the taste because it would mellow during the long voyage. He couldn’t have guessed better, the measures not only ensured Hogdson’s modified Pale Ale arrived intact, the recipients considered it an improvement.

This seems to be a summerization of the myth. Here’s the problem, there is no information from Hodgsons time showing that he was A) The only exporter to India B) That He invented a new beer style C) That anything he was doing was in any way new or unique D)and finally there’s no proof other beer couldn’t survive the trip to India.

Let’s go in order. I like order, it makes things….. orderly.

First off Hodgsons wasn’t the first brewer to export to India. At the time Hodgson broke into the India market (around 1790) the market was only 9-10 thousand bbl a year. Of this most people say Hodgson had only about half the market. That may seem staggering for someone to own half the market of an area that large until you think about the fact most of the market was imports. One thing for imports is you have to have people willing to export your product. The boats that exported to east India were generally docked at Blackwall and the Thames. This ruled out the famous Burton Brewers who were locked into the Russian Market. Bigger breweries probably wouldn’t have seen much incentive either to force a market that small. This left smaller concerns near the Blackwall and Thames areas to opt into filling the small demand.

My second contention is the idea that the IPA was created or invented specifically for the India market. Pale ale at the time referred to any beer brewed with pale malt which at the time hadn’t been around that long. IPA’s at the time also weren’t higher in alcohol then a normal beer. At the time an export IPA would rarely have an abv over 6-7%, and were most often lower. While even a high of 7% seems up there for a session beer it wasn’t unheard of for beer in that time. Finally we come to the dry hopping the basis of the idea the IPA’s were unique. I wish I could find my dry hopping statistics for some of the Burton Ales that I have somewhere. It’s an interesting glimpse at brewing history, and helps prove my point. If I find them I’ll put them up. What they prove is that it wasn’t unusual to liberally dry hop a beer. Also looking at IBU’s for IPA’s it becomes evident that they weren’t as dramatically over hopped as portrayed. An IPA could easily weigh in at 40 IBU’s, and it is not unheard of  to find porters with that IBU level either. More then likely Hodgsons IPA was in reality an evolution of the pale ale style over time and not specifically designed to voyage around the horn. Especially when one considers that porters were shipped to India as well.

The fact that there were other beers of similar or higher abv and similar or higher IBU’s exported around the world, and other beers besides Hodgsons exported to India shows that what Hodgsons did was not in and of itself unique. What is unique about what Hodgson did is that he brought the IPA to prominence. According to wikipedia (I know wiki isn’t always that accurate) Hodgsons liberal line of credit available is what helped him secure 50% of the export market to India and bring his beer to such prominence with sailors and those in India. When Hodgsons popularity dried up with the India merchants the Burton brewers were more then happy to step in to recapture some lost revenue caused by high tariffs in Russia. Burton brewers at the time were known for highly hopped highly alcoholic beers. It’s not much of a stretch to see where the IPA evolved into the hoppy alcoholic beer we love.

The final point I wanted to make was that other beers were shipped to India, and long voyages through warm climates. I already mentioned porters were. This is established in part by a journal entry from Joseph Banks on board the British ship the Endeavour

It was this day a twelvemonth since we left England, in consequence of which a peice of cheshire cheese was taken from a locker where it had been reservd for this occasion and a cask of Porter tappd which provd excellently good, so that we livd like English men and drank the healths of our freinds in England.

As soon as I get home I’m going to hit the books and see if I can find beer import figures from India at the time so I’ll have something more concrete then a journal entry to stand on, but I think it’s safe to say if the Endeavour sailed a full year in tropical climates equal to Indias before opening their porter that it supports the theory that the other beers going to India wouldn’t have been funky messes.

2 Responses to “The IPA Myth”

  1. jbx says:

    There is a lot of information to digest; more than one reading will be needed.

    I came across the blog post below last September.
    The blog presents the case that the standard IPA story is bogus. It posits IPA creation was not about adding hops and alcohol for shipment around the Cape of Good Hope; but, rather, about increasing the hops to qualify for export credit.


  2. Dave Heist says:

    Excellent post. Just found an excellent site with UK government documents on it – is a really well made site and them seem to be very up to date – always posting the latest UK government documents released to the public. Worth a look.

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