India Pale Ale: the influence of water

Mark DeWolf

Is there a beer style with more allure of the sea than India Pale Ale (IPA)? The name, for many, conjures images of ships loaded with barrels of hopped up ale sailing the high seas to quench the thirst of Brits stationed in India. The act of adding generous amounts of hops to the brew was born out of necessity, as they acted as a preservative for the long voyage.

But what began as a functional tool for a singular purpose continued on to define a region’s beer styles and help form the British beer industry as a whole.

The idea of using hops as a preservative didn’t come immediately. The first brews delivered to India in the late 18th century were no doubt some sour, turbid, potentially carbonated versions of the mild, dark ales of London (better known to us now as Brown Ale and Porter). Consider the journey it would have taken a cask on a three- to five-month-long journey first through the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, then the warmer waters of the north coast of Africa, into the Antarctic-influenced and devastatingly dangerous waters around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, before finally making their way in the much warmer waters of the Indian Ocean.

All that fluctuation in temperature would have made for the potential of some spoiled dark ales, styles which arguably were too heavy to satisfy a population living in the heat of India.

More than two decades after Britain had colonized India, the first India Ale was produced, in the style we know now as IPA. Unlike the traditional Porters and Brown Ales of London, the new style was pale, higher in alcohol (alcohol is a great antimicrobial) and dry hopped to act as a further preservative.

The initial success was enjoyed largely by the inventor of the style, George Hodgson. Hodgson and his son’s business practices, which included price hikes during shortages and attempts to eliminate middle-men in India in an effort to maximize profit, eventually led to Indian brokers looking to others to fill their needs.

The task of meeting demand fell on the brewers of Burton-on-Trent, who would develop their own recipe for Pale Ale. Thanks to the naturally high sulphate and calcium content of the local water — not to mention high amounts of magnesium and low levels of sodium — the Burton-on-Trent style known for its dry finish and slightly sulphurous nature became popular. The style remained export driven until, it has been said, a ship en route to India, loaded with beer, went down in the Irish Sea. The rescued casks were recovered and enjoyed by English mainlanders so much that demand for the style increased drastically in England. The Burton-on-Trent style would become a signature of English Pale Ale.

Over time, the English palate gradually moved to less hops and less alcohol. However, the emergence of a North American craft beer industry over the last few decades has revived IPA, as evidenced by the volumes of it made right here in Nova Scotia.

Next Week

We look at local brews inspired by our coastal connection.

Occasions Recommends

  • Propeller Double IPA, 500 ml $4.85
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