India Pale Ale: Icon Sprung From Invoice

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 novel information conveyed.

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 sense.

The term was not initially devised for marketing or romantic appeal. It was a descriptive, commercial formulation. It helped traders and consumers understand that the beer type was suitable for India, at the time reachable only by a long ship journey. Before pasteurization and mechanical cooling, beer was especially fragile. Even strong beer could deteriorate fast under stresses of climatic variations and disruptive transport.

In the 1850 Hodgson’s ad I discussed recently, see here, the brewery explained what made its beer different: more “body” and a special fermentation treatment. This can only mean it was made relatively strong, and fermented as low to remove sugars that might cause an uncontrolled, additional fermentation. It is possible, too, that “body” connoted the idea to maximize the dextrin content. This would increase the available starches for degradation by secondary yeasts (Brettanomyces), favouring more alcohol and, incidentally, the creation of special flavours.

Of course as Dr. Pryor also notes Hodgson’s IPA was extra-hopped, a factor not mentioned in the 1850 ad but understood by most then as a characteristic of pale ale exported to India.

For drinkers in India in the heyday of IPA, say 1780-1880, the name would have remained utilitarian. India Pale Ale or IPA meant an English or other U.K.-origin beer of reliable quality: beyond that nothing was needed. The beer did not need to connote anything special or unusual about its destination, after all the drinkers for whom the beer originally was intended were living there.

But from about 1850 in the U.K. a different connotation arose, the one noted by Pryor. This was encouraged perhaps by soldiers and administrators of the Raj who had returned home, who recalled a staple of India days with a new fondness, or in a new light.

In time, by evocative labels and advertising, producers took advantage of this. The ad below is of this type, in our view, showing not just an important market for Bass but the ambit of Empire at the time.

A dish like kedgeree, based on the Indian rice dish kichiri. The bits of smoked haddock in kedgeree were a U.K. flourish, so the dish offered something familiar and yet different, foreign. The same for curries, as most were based on lamb and beef, a familiar comestible in Britain, but rarely eaten by most of the Indian population, especially Hindus.

IPA was similar in the sense of bearing characteristics not typically British (the high hopping of pale ale, the high attenuation, the very name “India” in the name) with a familiar, English-made product, beer.

And so Bass, and the other pale ale brewers who superseded Hodgson, benefitted at home from this new association. It 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 associated with the Empire, or at least Empire trade. Reports had them in France, Brazil, Patagonia, Quebec, or Peking, among many examples. Hodgson’s beer was the first to acquire a global connotation, and became iconic. Later, Bass took that over, and Allsopp, and expanded it.

Products like IPA hence gained an ineffable quality from being both foreign and domestic. There wasn’t a single foreign material in IPA, but it didn’t matter: an attractive foreign quality resulted from the India designation and ads like Bass’.

Guinness stout was different in my view because when exported, it was not really the same product at home, but stronger and more tart, and never acquired the same notoriety as IPA. In any case, the terms Foreign Extra Stout or West Indies Porter, evocative as they may sound to some today, never caught on in Ireland or the U.K. in the same way as IPA.*

This special quality attaching to IPA, to the extent it existed (and one should not overestimate it in Britain)  disappeared after WW I. Bass’s advertising in the 1930s became more “domestic”, focusing on humour, sports, and the usual modern formulas. Others brewers followed. Empire was quickly losing its appeal in the popular imagination with the rise of nationalist sentiment, costly wars, and costly League of Nations mandates.

Then came the beer renaissance.

Author and journalist Michael Jackson may have created – did, imo – the idea of “Imperial” Stout. It arose from the stories he recounted about Catherine the Great, Florence Nightingale, and the Crimean War. The period illustrations in the book, well-chosen and reproduced, helped.

But he didn’t do this for IPA. In his original (1977) and later (1988) world beer guides IPA appears briefly, in the pale ale chapter.

in the early 1980s the American craft brewer Bert Grant put an evocative Taj Mahal design on his Grant’s India Pale Ale bottle. Only then did the idea slowly emerge that IPA had a special quality.  It was Pryor’s reassuring and familiar (beer) with the “unfamiliarity” of India.

He was abetted in this in my view by the reputation in pre-craft, connoisseur circles of Ballantine India Pale Ale, made by a large industrial brewery.

Ahead of the craft era, a sailing ship featured on the buff-coloured label, with a story how a rocking, quaint-looking ship enhanced the product.

IPA as a genre became successful in part due to this “new” dimension, but has now lost it surely. Few of its drinkers know much about the history, after all. The interest today is in all the various types of IPA. Still, a kind of mystique helped put craft IPA on the American stage, and something similar preceded this in the U.K. in the latter 1800s and early 1900s.


Some last comments, on Bass Pale Ale in that period. 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 on labour and wages overseas.**

He noticed the great amount of drinking that went on and discussed the importance of breweries, Bass in Burton-on-Trent especially. He wrote (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.

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.


* There is 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.

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.