It comes from England. In the later 1700s a London brewer called Hodgson sent some pale beer to India, then a British province. It took off and was “the” beer of the Raj until knocked down a peg or two by competition from Burton-on-Trent in the form of Bass Pale Ale and similar beers from the Trent Valley. Pale Ale is the same as India Pale Ale. So is bitter, of “pint o’ bitter” fame. Terminology was never precise and all that can be said is, the exported form of pale ale was often called India Pale Ale, IPA or East India Pale Ale. Ultimately, some domestic pale ale was called that too.
Hodgson’s beer seems to have been inspired by cellared (aged) country pale ale, a drink of the better-off. Hodgson pale ale was not unusually strong although a couple of vague early accounts suggest it was. By the mid-1800s, the strength of IPA in general was about 6% abv. This was not as strong as the staple mild ale of the period but stronger than most porter was in the 1800s. Strong enough, let’s say.
More than its relative strength, what distinguished IPA was its dry character. In a time when most beers were relatively sweet, pale ale was fermented more thoroughly and had dry, clean character on the palate. To be sure it had some malty quality, but not a thick heavy one. The reason for the dryness was that in a time before refrigeration and pasteurization, if the beer had more than traces of fermentable sugar, it might “fret” or spoil on the trip to India or other distant markets. Wild yeasts and bacteria can easily consume available sugars with the risk of making the drink sour. When beer has few or no fermentable sugars, it will remain relatively stable especially as IPA was made very bitter from a massive infusion of hops: hop resins are a natural preservative.
IPA became famous around the world. It was in Paris in the 1880s when Edouard Manet painted his renowned scene of the bar of the Follies-Bergères. IPA was manufactured in Canada and the U.S. by British incomers who were following the ways of the old country. Even by 1900 some of the North American IPA was around 7% abv, attesting in my view to the character of the earliest British examples (1770-1820). A living time capsule of this 1900-era pale ale, at 6.8% abv, can be tasted in the form of Molson Coors’ recent recreation of a 1908 recipe. I discussed this beer here recently.
Of course, time moved on and by the 1990s, pale ale, initially a bottled specialty, was largely in Britain a draft beer, better known by its pub name, “bitter”. Classic English bitter was sometimes dry but not always – once again pale ale was never a matter for the statute books, its boundaries are naturally elastic. This bitter did remain fairly astringent from the hop resins released in the boil, or flowery/herbal from the hop’s aroma. In the U.S., the last old-established IPA, Ballantine India Pale Ale, was withdrawn from the market in 1996. That beer, although reduced from what it had been, was similar to modern English bitters but stronger, more in line with IPA’s origins. A couple of beers in Canada were still called India Pale Ale and pale ale but these were lager-like in character by then.
The craft brewing movement returned quality pale ale and IPA to the brewing scene. The beers called IPA as such on the label tended to be drier and stronger than pale ale tout court, but again there is no statutory line. The first commercial IPA to be revived so-called was in the early 1990s and made by Yakima Brewing And Malting, in Washington State. It was owned by the late Bert Grant, who had worked for decades in the Canadian brewing and hop industries. I remember it well and it was a lean beer with a huge hop presence which spoke of American hop fields, understandable given Washington State is a hop heartland. There was lots of grapefruit, citrus pith and pine in the nose and taste.
It is not too much to state that IPA became the star of North American and international craft brewing. The American form – often stronger than contemporary bitter and always redolent of American hop varieties – has become popular in the U.K. It sits next to the older English bitter ales as the brash upstart on the scene. (And yes, for various reasons, modern English bitter isn’t identical to the pale ale and bitter of 1880, say. But it is close enough).
Recently I tried one of the latest IPAs on the U.S. market, from Tired Hands Brewery in the Philadelphia area. It’s called, in the jazzy idiom of today’s beer scene, Kick Phone iFlip. It’s got some wheat in it and that, plus the way it’s brewed, and the four American hops used potently for aroma, give it a light and very refreshing quality. In this modern form of IPA, post-modern shall we say, the beer is not really bitter, it’s more the hop flavour you are getting. This is the hyper-cool, contemporary style of IPA, it looked in the glass like cloudy limeade and tasted a bit like it too if you left out most of the sugar. The Ratebeer website, with some 17 reviews in, gives it an astonishing 99 out of 100.
There are lots of IPAs still sold from an earlier time in the craft revival, Stone IPA is an avatar of this type. They tend to have a similar hop taste to Kick Phone but are more bitter and richer in malt taste. But whether new school or older, U.S. IPA always has a different taste to original English bitter. English hops were used for generations to flavour English pale ale and bitter. The English hop taste tends to be much less citric than the American flavour, and often flowery and arbor-like. Also, English pale ale usually has a caramel note lacking in American IPAs. I am excluding here newer English styles such as golden ale and session IPA, both of which have a marked American influence.
Bass Ale, progenitor of the world vogue for IPA which commenced about 1825, is still available. It is owned by a large group, and nothing wrong with that, Bass was a big boy itself in its classic era. We used to get it in bottles and kegs as an import. I never really enjoyed the taste, which was kind of “old toffee apple”, sometimes with banana or sulphur notes. But I always felt that pasteurization and long transport altered the “brewery-fresh” profile.
In Canada today, or rather Ontario, we get now a draft Bass brewed by Labatt in Toronto. It is very good, you see it in the image above of the amber pint. While somewhat reminiscent of the import formerly available, it is much fresher and has a pleasing, complex aftertaste particularly when left to warm. It is somewhat malty with a fruity quality of some kind and good racy hop edge. It is nothing remotely like the fragrant, citric American IPAs.
I like both types, although the English style of pale ale is hard to beat. I know people always lauded the cask (unfiltered, real ale) version of Bass Ale, which you can still find in England. But this Toronto-made, brewery-conditioned version is plenty good. Any admirer of the brewing arts would have to give it kudos, if he or she is being honest.
Note re images used: The first two images above are believed in the public domain and were sourced via Wikipedia in this entry on Bass Brewery, here. All feedback welcomed.