IPA: a Pretty Romance (Part I)

The Old Romantics

This is the kind of post (although aren’t they all) where I could write a paragraph or 10 pages, nay a book.

Let’s keep it short and I’ll omit most of the references for convenience but did fact-check the best I could, in a wide range of sources. As always we are interested to receive feedback and glad to post corrections, clarifications, or other comment.

Modern India Pale Ale, or IPA, is characterized by relatively high ABV, 6-7%, and a frank expression of the New World hop tastes inaugurated by Cascade starting from 1972.

Modern IPA began in formal terms with Grant’s India Pale Ale which dates from 1983, some sources state 1982. Other influences on the style include early craft beers similar to IPA but called simply ale or pale ale.  Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Celebration Ale are frequently cited in this regard.

Prior to that and since the 1800s, Ballantine India Pale Ale, in the 1980s made by Falstaff Brewing which had purchased Ballantine Brewery in 1972, waived the flag for IPA in America. It derived ultimately from British models, and in its classic era used a mix of European aroma hops and pre-Cascade bittering hops, Cluster or something similar (there were changes over time, however).

From 1972, when P. Ballantine & Sons closed in Newark, NJ, until 1981, Ballantine India Pale Ale was brewed in Cranston, Rhode Island, at the former Narragansett plant. In that year* it moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, a Falstaff satellite and formerly the historic Berghoff plant.

Before the move, the Ballantine label made no particular reference to the origin-story of IPA. It didn’t show a Taj Mahal or clipper ship or any imagery that would link the beer to India, other of course than India being part of the name. It showed the “three rings” associated with the Ballantine brand since early days, as other Ballantine beers did.

But from 1981 and the move mentioned, the label changed. It showed a clipper ship with text referencing the rocking of the beer on the long journey, wood aging, and a new taste.

This was noticed by beer writers, and early craft brewers, who started to ponder this interesting, romantic-sounding history. What was a prosaic trade term through the 1800s – India Pale Ale or East India Pale Ale – became something magical, even talismanic.

Soon craft IPAs emerged that used similar imagery on their labels. Grant’s India Pale Ale was the first, but many followed. Even beers that didn’t use the imagery were discussed in this new context, an exotica derived from East of Eden.

Michael Jackson is credited with many achievements in beer-writing but creating the lore and myth of IPA is not one. In his 1977 The World Guide to Beer, he devoted some lines to India Pale Ale and its history but essentially viewed it as a sub-set of pale ale/bitter. He appeared to consider that pale ale was the modern form, and erratic survivals of the type associated with the old India trade had no more significance than that.

It appears, therefore, that c.1980 an industrial brewer’s ad agency or in-house packaging designer created the mystique of IPA in a way both unprecedented and irresistible to beer fans: everyone wanted to try a beer with that history.

India Pale Ale thenceforth meant, not just a particular form of beer, designed to last a long journey under adverse conditions, but something we could relate to pith hats, old Calcutta, old politics and empires, and the riot of colours and sensations that are India today and formerly.

Yet, was this marketing potential never realized before? Not, as far as I can tell, in British labels and advertisements for India Pale Ale or pale ale of the 1800s. Sometimes the idea of ubiquity is suggested via Empire, Bass did this specifically in colourful advertising, but nothing suggesting India specifically, except for that single world in the beer’s name.

One must be cautious saying “never” but I’ve examined scores of labels and ads and couldn’t find anything comparable to the post-Cranston Ballantine label. (Rather than the face launching 1000 ships, it was the ship launching 1000 faces: of modern craft beer).

But stop. There was a precedent for very similar marketing, and appropriately in the United States. Look at this ad, from Paterson, NJ’s Evening News in October 1917 (via the Fulton History newspaper archive, as the news article mentioned below).

Paterson Brewing Company, a merger of five breweries of which Hinchliffe was a key component, worked out the romance angle long before Falstaff in 1980-81.

Not only that, an advertorial appeared the same year, in the same newspaper, expressing the theme in straight narrative. You can see the early Mad Men brain at work, burning the midnight oil with gin and tonic, perhaps, as Michael Jackson liked to say.

With a few changes of language the tale would fit well in a modern beer book. Here is the link.

A pretty tale it is, and romantic, to be sure.

Part II of this post can be read, here.

Note re images: the first two images were sourced from Jess Kidden’s Ballantine google pages, here. The Grant’s India Pale Ale label was sourced from the Beeryard site, here. The sources for the last two images are linked in the text. All intellectual property in the said sources belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*See our note added in the Comments section.





1 thought on “IPA: a Pretty Romance (Part I)

  1. This piece in the online Beer and Brewing Magazine, quoting from The Oxford Companion to Beer, gives 1979 as the date of the move to the Fort Wayne plant. The earliest labels I’ve seen for Ballantine IPA with clipper ship, e.g., on Tavern Trove’s site, state Fort Wayne on the margin but not of course Milwaukee, which came into the picture after Falstaff was merged into Pabst, from 1985.

    This Tavern Trove label for Ballantine IPA states as noted Fort Wayne only, with a year stated for origin as 1974. That year seems too early to me and probably should be, at the earliest, 1979.

    For this reason, I believe the clipper ship and “Discovered in the Spring of 1824 …” text (obviously that year cannot be right) appeared on bottles of Ballantine IPA at least from 1981, possibly earlier.

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