India Pale Ale: Icon Sprung From Invoice

  1. A Transformation by Circumstance and History

Dr. Alan Pryor, who holds a M.Phil. and Ph.D. from University of Essex in Colchester, U.K., has published numerous papers in recent years on porter and India Pale Ale history. A number have appeared in the journal Brewery History. His work is compelling with real insights and some novel information.

In his 2009 paper, “Indian Pale Ale: an Icon of Empire” the following appears:

… Indian pale ale followed the trade routes of the growing British Empire, a reassuring symbol of the mother country in remote areas of foreign lands, gaining a brand identity that would be envied even today. The use of the Anglo-Saxon‘ale’ united the ancient tradition of Britain with the unfamiliarity of India, encapsulating the concept of metropole and colony in a single phrase. The development of brand names allowed devotees of a particular product to attach iconic status to their particular preference, whether it be from Hodgson, Allsopp or Bass. In Britain,the idea of empire could now be ‘packaged’ into products where the strange and exotic had been tamed, where India could be experienced with the consumption of a curry, pilau rice and a bottle of IPA.

This is a key insight – that a term, India Pale Ale or East India Pale Ale acquired a resonance beyond the original, prosaic trade signification.

These terms were not initially devised for marketing or romantic appeal. They were descriptive, commercial formulations. Formulations that helped traders and consumers understand that the beer in question was a type suitable for India, sent of course by sailing ship then. Before pasteurization and mechanical cooling, beer was famously fragile. Even strong beer, and well-hopped beer, could go downhill fast under stresses of climatic change and disruptive transport.

In the 1850 Hodgson’s ad I discussed recently, see here, the brewery explained the special quality that made its beer different: more “body” and a special fermentation treatment. This can only mean it was made relatively strong and fermented at the brewery as low as practicable to remove sugars that might become vinegar by uncontrolled further fermentation(s). It is possible too that “body” connoted the idea to maximize, e.g. through mashing temperature, dextrin content. This would increase the available starches for degradation by secondary yeasts (Brettanomyces), favouring yet more alcohol and special flavours at destination.

Of course too, as Dr. Pryor notes, Hodgson’s IPA was extra-hopped, a factor not mentioned in the 1850 ad but understood by most people then having to do with beer internationally.

For drinkers in India in the heyday of IPA, 1780-1880, the beer type and its name would have remained utilitarian. No additional romance was needed, they got enough merely by living and working in the sub-Continent. India Pale Ale or IPA was an English or other U.K. beer they could rely on locally as efficacious, no more.

But from about 1850 in the U.K. although starting earlier, to ex-Raj soldiers and administrators now retired or on re-assigment, and finally to others, these terms acquired a deeper connotation, the one noted by Pryor. This was an accident, although later by evocative labels and advertising the producers took advantage of it.

The story was similar for, say, a dish like kedgeree, based on the Indian rice dish kichiri. The bits of smoked haddock were a U.K. flourish, so the dish offered something familiar and yet different: exotic. The same thing for curries, as most were based on lamb and beef, familiar to the Briton. That beef was proscribed to most of India, and meat of any kind a luxury to most native Indians.

And so Bass, and the other pale ale brewers who superseded Hodgson, benefitted from a new association, at home. This was reinforced by the reports of travellers that Bass Pale Ale, and often Allsopp’s or Salt’s beer, were available almost anywhere one could journey. They were markers of Empire, or at least of Empire trade, when they appeared by reports in Brazil, Patagonia, Quebec, or Peking. Hodgson’s beer was the first to acquire such global reach, and became iconic. Later Bass took that over, indeed expanded it.

Products like IPA had an ineffable quality from being both foreign and domestic. There wasn’t a single (eastern) foreign material in IPA, but it didn’t matter: foreigness resulted from the product being designed for India and other far-flung markets. Guinness was different because when exported, Guinness was not the same product (more or less) as valued at home. Rather, stout of a lower gravity and different taste ruled the home market.

Anyway, the terms Foreign Extra Stout or West Indies Porter, evocative as they may now sound, never caught on in Ireland or the U.K. People were satisfied with plain porter, single stout, and extra stout at most.*

I apprehend that this special quality attaching to IPA disappeared in Britain after WW I. Bass advertising in the 1930s and after seems more “domestic”, focusing on humour, sports, and the usual modern formulae to shift beer off shelves.

Then came the beer renaissance.

Author and journalist Michael Jackson may have created – did, IMO – the idea of Imperial Stout, with its evocative Catherine the Great and Florence Nightingale/Crimean War associations. He didn’t do that for IPA. In his original (1977) and later (1988) world beer guides he discusses IPA briefly, in the pale ale chapter. This is completely correct from a historical standpoint.

Only when American Bert Grant in the early 1980s put an evocative Taj Mahal design on his Grant’s India Pale Ale bottle did the idea slowly develop that IPA was something special, exotic. He of course was abetted by the long reputation pre-craft Ballantine India Pale Ale had with its buff-coloured sailing ship and script how the rocking improved the product.

IPA is so successful today that, finally, it has lost that romantic angle, few of its drinkers know anything about that history. But that is only after some 40 years’ development. Mythos helped put IPA on the world stage and something similar preceded that in the U.K. in the 1800s. While the U.K. mythic appeal died out as noted – from then on the type was known as “bitter” in the pub and pale ale tout court on the bottle – the Americans re-created the legend in the last 40 years.

Bass Pale Ale was the global follow-up to Hodgson’s beer. It was so famous, so ubiquitous, that people who didn’t love beer became annoyed to see it “everywhere”. In 1875, Edward Young, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, wrote a book about labour and wages overseas.** He noticed the great amount of drinking that went on and discussed the importance of breweries, Bass of Burton-on-Trent in particular. He wrote this of Bass (see pp. 400-401):


Throughout Europe and America, and in countries which the traveler rarely visits, the name of Bass is well known. In places where the immortal works of Shakespeare are unread, the products of Bass are familiar; ears which have never heard the classic name of Stratford-upon-Avon, are not unused to Burton-on Trent. It was hoped by an inexperienced American, when leaving London— whose placarded houses and walls proclaimed the virtues of the ale or porter of different and rival brewers—that by crossing the Channel he would escape from the ubiquitous Burton brewer, but the first English words that met his eyes as he sat at breakfast at Dieppe were “Bass’ ale.” At the far East this ale was seen not only in the modern but in the renowned ancient capital of Russia,[1] and at the great fair at Kijni Novgorod on the far off Volga, as well as in the usual routes of travel in Central Europe; at the West, in the floating palaces which traverse the Atlantic, and in New York, Washington, and throughout the United States, even to the shores of the Pacific, Bass’ ale can be procured. And it may be doubted whether there is any spot upon the globe, where civilized people dwell which is unsupplied with the malt liquors of Bass, Allsopp, or other English brewer. Although the evils resulting from the continued use of strong beer are painfully apparent in Great Britain, yet it does not easily intoxicate. Taken at meals or with bread, forming as it does a chief article of consumption, it is apparently harmless; but its excessive and long-continued use, especially at night and when taken by itself, produces most injurious effects. The beer of Germany, especially of Bavaria, which forms a staple article of consumption, must be much lighter, for in that country intoxication is infrequent. Indeed, the consul of the United States at Chemnitz remarked, “Judging from the quantity a native can consume, I apprehend that one will stagger quicker from the weight than the strength of the potion.” In England, small or light beer has been in general use for many centuries, and was a common beverage long before the introduction of tea. Indeed it is a little remarkable that while the use of beer does not diminish, that of “the cup which cheers but not inebriates” has greatly increased, until the average consumption, in that country has reached four pounds per capita. To those who need or think they need some stimulus, the use of malt liquors is far less injurious than spirits. The intemperance which so generally prevails in Liverpool, Glasgow, London, and Antwerp, where West India rum and other spirits are largely consumed, attests this fact.


[1] In 1789 a consignment of twenty half hogsheads of ale, containing 789 gallons, was made by a Burton brewer to Saint Petersburg, and in exchange requested the shipment of pipe and hogshead staves. Mr. Bass, like Mr. Guinness, in Dublin, and the late Mr. Vassar of this country, has distributed large sums in benevolence. A church was pointed out to the writer in Burton, costing some £25,000, and another situated elsewhere, which were built at his sole expense. Possibly there is some connection, other than alliteration, between beer and benevolence.

   2. When Domestic Products Succeed Internationally

I’ve got something to say that might cause you pain
If I catch you selling overseas again …
Because I told you before, oh
You can’t do that***

In a later period, not a few bien pensants took, say, McDonald’s to task for selling burgers in places they thought should hew to their local cuisine (the better for roaming tourists, or subconsciously, I’d guess). They said it of Starbucks too, of Coca Cola – probably the first actually to encounter such opprobrium – and more. Has anyone noticed the chatter has shifted today? Maybe because when it came to Apple and Microsoft, and the obvious advantages global expansion brought, such jibing seemed irrelevant, even petty. Some would say its superficiality was exposed for what it was.

Anyway, the spread of Cuban cigars, or Russian vodka, was never considered as unmeet as encountering Coke or KFC in Polynesia. I wonder why that was.****

Coke there is still in plenty around the world. Bass ale, not so much, and Hodgson’s of course, finis. Tastes differ, times change too. Even Coke’s day may come nigh, and not just abroad. But it’s not that Asia didn’t like the flower of England’s ale: it’s that it preferred finally another form of beer: blonde lager.


* I allow a limited exception for Imperial Stout but its market was so tiny as to be imperceptible.

** Young was actually Nova Scotia-born, and returned to Canada at one point to help negotiate the financial terms of Confederation.

*** With apologies to Lennon & McCartney.

**** Japanese autos, recording equipment. You name it. Oh, that Dutch beer, what’s it called … Heineken.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced at this puzzle library site, the second from this Falstaff history website, and the third from a beer label collector’s site, here. The quotation is from Edward Young’s book referenced and linked in the text. Images and quotation appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs to their sole owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.