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 book. To keep it short I’ll omit most references 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 I.P.A. is, like the original U.K. type, relatively high alcohol, 6-7% ABV. It innovates over the old school by an emphasis on New World hop tastes. The template is the grapefruit-like Cascade hop, first released to market in the U.S. in 1972.

Modern IPA begins in formal terms with Grant’s India Pale Ale in Seattle which dates from 1983, some sources state 1982. Other influences on modern IPA include Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, with origins in 1975, and Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and Celebration Ale (c.1981) even though these earlier beers did not use “India” in the name.

Prior to these beers Ballantine India Pale Ale, long associated with New Jersey’s Ballantine Brewery bought by Falstaff Brewing in 1972, waived the flag for IPA in America. Made since the 1800s Ballantine’s beer was based on British models. In its classic era, mid-1900s, it used a mixture of European aroma hops and pre-Cascade American bittering hops, the workhorse Cluster or similar. There were changes over time in the hop specs.

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

Before the 1981 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 using the word India in the style name. It showed the “three rings”, part of the Ballantine trade mark since early days, as did other Ballantine brands such as XXX Ale and Ballantine Beer, a lager formula.

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

This was noticed by beer writers, and early craft brewers 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 special, even talismanic.

Soon, craft IPAs emerged that used similar imagery in advertising. 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 exotic history that lent an irresistible allure.

The late Michael Jackson (1942-2007) is credited with many achievements in beer-writing but creating the lore and myth of IPA cannot be counted among them. In his 1977 The World Guide to Beer, he devoted a few lines to India Pale Ale and its history but essentially viewed it, quite properly, as part of pale ale/bitter history. He appeared to consider pale ale the modern form, and that erratic survivals of the old IPA name had no more significance than that. This made sense in Britain where all pale ale, bitter, and the few surviving IPAs were fairly low in strength, 5% ABV or usually less.

It appears therefore that c.1980 an American industrial brewer’s advertising agency or in-house packaging designer created the “India” mystique of IPA. This was (apparently) unprecedented and irresistible to beer fans: everyone wanted to try a beer with that history.

India Pale Ale thenceforth meant, not just a historical 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. It evoked the riot of colours and sensations that India connotes to many westerners. A lot of money was made selling IPA on that basis.

Yet, a question. Was this marketing angle never seen before? Not, as far as I can tell, in British labels and advertisements for India Pale Ale from the 1800s until the craft era. Bass brewery sometimes used colourful advertising to suggest the beer was available throughout the Empire, but nothing to suggest India as such or any romance associated thereby.

One must be cautious saying “never”, but I’ve examined scores of such labels and ads and couldn’t find anything comparable to the post-Cranston, R.I. Ballantine label.

But stop. There was a precedent for similar marketing, and appropriately, in the United States. Consider this evocative 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 was a merger of five breweries of which Hinchliffe was a key component. It 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 breathless narrative. You can see the early Mad Men brain at work (burning the midnight oil with gin and tonic, probably, not beer, as Michael Jackson liked to say).

With a few changes of language the tale would fit well in a modern beer book about IPA. Here is the link, a pretty tale it is, and romantic-sounding 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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