Thursday, August 02, 2012

Real Beer

To properly celebrate IPA Day, it's good to know The Truth About the Origins of IPA:

Because of its popularity, most craft drinkers know – or think they know – how IPA began. To quote one version of the popular history of the style: "Back in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, England held a large colonial presence in India. The soldiers, sailors and civilians had a huge appetite for beer. Trouble was, the voyage to India was long, and by the time the ship made it there the traditional beers had spoiled. Even when they didn't, the dark porters that were popular at the time weren't quite the ticket in the hot climate of India. George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery in London was the first person to come up with an answer to this problem. He began brewing a lighter style of beer, known as pale ale. Hodgson realized that high alcohol and hop levels would retard spoilage. His process succeeded, and for about 50 years he held a virtual monopoly on the market."

Trouble is, almost none of the above is true. Ale and beer were being successfully exported to India – and farther – from at least the beginning of the 18th century, and while there was some spoilage, the beers that were being sent out could easily last a year or more in cask. So nobody needed to invent a new style of beer to survive the journey better. Porter continued to be popular in India through the 19th century, and strong dark beers are still drunk in hot climates, from Sri Lanka to the West Indies. Pale ales were around for at least a century before George Hodgson began brewing.

By the 1760’s brewers were being advised that it was “absolutely necessary” to add extra hops to beer if it was being sent to warmer climes, but there is no evidence linking this advice to any specific brewer and certainly no evidence that Hodgson was the person who thought this plan up. Nor was the beer that became IPA particularly strong in alcohol: At around 6.5 percent alcohol by volume, it was, if anything, slightly weaker than average for the time.

Certainly Hodgson's Bow brewery, on the eastern edge of London, became the best-known and most popular brewer of pale ales for export to India, though he never had a "virtual monopoly." Other brewers were also shipping beer out east, from London, from Liverpool, from Edinburgh and elsewhere. His advantage had less to do with the excellence of his product and owed more the fact that his brewery was only a short distance from where the East Indiamen, the ships that did the trading with India for the East India Company (the people whose tea led to a well-known riot in Boston), tied up in the Thames.

The commanders of the East Indiamen traded on their own behalves, taking out goods from England to sell to the East India Company's "civil" and "military" servants in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, and among the items they took out was beer. Hodgson, although a comparatively small brewer, was handily placed to supply that beer, and also granted the ships' commanders extended credit, and that's why they traded with him rather than any of the bigger London brewers.

Pale ale, along with porter from England, made by unnamed brewers, was being advertised for sale in India by 1784. Nine years later, Hodgson's pale ale and porter were being advertised in India by name (note, incidentally, that despite what many modern writers will try to tell you, there were no apparent problems about exporting porter to the East). But we don't know whether the Hodgsons were putting extra hops into their pale ale sent to India in the 1790’s, as brewers were being advised to do in the 1760’s – we have no evidence for Hodgson's pale ale recipe at this time at all.

Keep this in mind for the next time that that guy who thinks he knows everything about beer (you know who I'm talking about) tells you what he thinks is the story behind the origins of IPA.