India Pale Ale – an Amazing Double Act

In 1863, an Adelaide, South Australia newspaper printed an article on India Pale Ale which had appeared in Illustrated London News.

The article was, I’d guess, partly an advertorial by Allsopp, the great Burton-on-Trent brewer profiled in the story. Nonetheless there is considerable information in the piece of interest which could only have come from the personal knowledge of the writer or those he knew. In particular, he makes the point that India Pale Ale really was new in England when, in the early years as he says of Queen Victoria’s reign, it started to take off.

We might consider his statements as instructive for our time when IPA was re-invented with American push and panache and has since become the star of brewing again, including back home in Britain, whence sprang the brew originally.

There is something special about IPA in this regard, something even lager – which IPA itself is partly responsible for (another story) – can’t claim. Lager is undoubtedly the biggest beer type in the world but it has lost its distinctiveness through mass market production. There are many fine lagers still made, but they almost constitute a separate category from the type which rules the brewing world today.

IPA, on the other hand, never was blandified into a commodity. Even traditional English bitter – some would say especially – retains the essence of what made IPA great to begin with. Add to that the brash Americanized versions now on offer around the world, you have a phoenix worthy of the name.

They say there is no such thing as a double act. IPA has proved the old adage wrong. The reasons it has come back are in many ways the obverse of what the earnest English writer argued in 1863. Then, IPA was viewed as a more temperate drink than brandy-and-water and double stout, tipples it partly displaced. (I said partly). Its strong bitter was not liked initially but finally people accustomed to it and viewed it as a tonic, a quasi-medicine.

Today, IPA, whose average strength is about what it was in 1863, is sought out because it is stronger than adjunct lager and offers a more bitter and zesty taste.

Different reasons, but both resulted in a market phenomenon, some 150 years apart, for the same drink.

In India, as may presently be shown, this delightful beverage has been known and appreciated since the early part of the century; but in England it was long considered with us a potation fit only for exportation, and had to work its way gradually and laboriously ere it could obtain favour. We well remember the first appearance of pale ale in the metropolis, when our beloved Sovereign was quite a newly-crowned Queen. People made wry faces at it at first, talked about gall and wormwood, and disparaged the new ‘Indian ale’, as it was called, as a nauseous potion, fit only for Indian ‘griffins’ with no palate, and Indian Judges of Sudder Adawiut with no livers.

Speedily, however, it was discovered that the sparkling, brightened decoction of malt, hops, and pure water known as pale ale was in verity the ‘cup that cheers and not inebriates’— that it did not stupefy or lead to congestion and heartburn like double stout— that it did not tend to vertigo and the endangerment of the centre of gravity like Scotch ale taken ‘so early in the morning’ — that it did not lower the system or impair the digestive organs like soda-water— that its alcoholic properties were sufficient for gentle stimulation but not for intoxication— that its medicinal qualities were manifold; and that in many cases its moderate consumption gave health to the invalid, and made healthy persons healthier. In process of time pale or bitter ale became a great fact.

It has been called the champagne of the middle classes; but it is ten times more palatable than bad champagne, and twice as wholesome as the very best. Pale ale, having made its mark, has continued year after year to increase in popularity. That popularity has now attained an amazing pitch. Everybody drinks pale ale, either in bottle or in draught. It refreshes the Royal Duke at his modest Horse Guards lunch — it consoles the subaltern pining in his hut amidst the desolate boredom of Aldershott — it is the solace of the commercial traveller, who is beginning to eschew those potent magnums of brown brandy and water of which the abuse is so pernicious. Pale ale relieves the dulness of a sea voyage. Pale ale is to be had at the refreshment-rooms of every railway station in the kingdom.

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