Pale ales as we know them today have been around for some 500-plus years. In jolly old England, the term was simply used to describe an ale that was significantly lighter than the ever-present porters that filled pubs. For the Englishman who was sent to India, however, a proper British brew was far, far away.
The IPA was born by brewers to make sure it tasted right by the time it arrived in India.
Beer doesn’t necessarily go bad in the way certain foods will spoil if not kept properly. Oxidation will cause a beer under six percent alcohol to lose its flavor and depth. After three to six months, any beer will start to change significantly.
In brews with a higher ABV, this length of time can be up to a year or more. The change in the flavor profiles of these beers is actually an improvement, though. And an IPA usually rests between six to nine percent ABV.
A trip to India by sea in the days of British control could take up to six months or more. British beer shipped on these voyages would suffer the fate of growing stale or oxidizing entirely. A brewer named George Hodgson tried a few tricks to improve the beer quality in India. He tried adding yeast only when the ships arrived India. He tried a beer concentrate that would be diluted when ready to drink. Nothing worked.
Then he tried creating a beer that was supposed to be aged like wine, a beer that was packed with fresh hops and usually reserved for wealthy estate owners who wanted to wean themselves off of French wines while using their harvests to its full capacity. These were sometimes called “October Beers.”
By the time the brew arrived in India, it was much cleaner, more refreshing, and much, much smoother than the bitter, hoppy taste it had when packaged for the journey.
The tastes of the IPA has only exploded in popularity in the United States in the last thirty or so years. The America of post-World War II preferred a smooth lager, like Budweiser or Coors, with a low ABV. The pale ale made this huge comeback because of the rise of homebrewers and craft beer – for which we can all thank President Jimmy Carter.
When Carter signed a 1978 resolution that allowed Americans to brew in their homes without being taxed, he sparked a revolution in beer culture in the United States. With the rise of homebrewers and craft beer, the India Pale Ale has been bouncing back ever since.
But no one buys a case of beer to drink six months from now. If you did, you’d find a mellower version, sweet and malty, with almost no hop character. Just make sure you use a bottled IPA with a high ABV.
Blake Stilwell is a traveler and writer with degrees in television and film, international relations, public relations, and graphic design. He is a former Air Force combat cameraman whose work includes ABC News, NBC, HBO, and the White House. In his previous life, he was Communications Director for the Near East Foundation in the Middle East and Africa. Blake is based in LA but often found elsewhere.