Thursday, August 07, 2014

Hoppy History

Today is National IPA Day and the appropriate and obvious way to celebrate is to quaff a few pints of the delicious beer style. But while you’re at it you also may want to take a moment and familiarize yourself with the real 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.

Like many others, I too had long subscribed to the theory that IPAs were created to survive the long sea journey to India and were named thusly. It sounded good and it made sense. In fact it was only a few years ago when I read the article above that I was made wise to the fallacy that had been so oft peddled.

What’s surprising is how often I still see it repeated today especially by those who should know better. Just last week in Milwaukee, I came across the erroneous IPA back story at a craft brewery.

So when you’re knocking back a couple of gloriously hoppy ales tonight please keep in mind that the story you’ve probably heard about its origin is not exactly the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And if you get a chance pass the word so that other hop heads also understand that they've been mislead.