“ … IPA was a beer born of necessity: the colonial British of the East India Company were sweating in their red coatsin remote parts of the sub-continent and were simply not content with drinking tonic.”
Epic sea voyages are an integral part of beer’s global history and expansion, and arguably the most famous travel tale is that of the India Pale Ale (IPA) which owes its existence as a distinct style to the sea journey between England and India in the 19th century.
The IPA was a beer born of necessity: the colonial British of the East India Company were sweating in their red coatsin remote parts of the sub-continent and were simply not content with drinking tonic. While the value of tonic and the anti-malarial quinine properties it contained cannot be understated - not to mention its ability to provide a pleasant mixer for Gin - what the men particularly craved was the home comfort of an English Ale. And after several years spent in the oppressive Indian heat, that seems to be quite a reasonable craving.
The problem for the thirsty colonists, and indeed for the brewers, lay in the perishability of the product. As anyone who has baked bread will know, one of the keys to the success of the mixture is ensuring the yeast is allowed to go through its normal life cycle. Because yeast is a living organism it is sensitive to the environment around it, and if the conditions are not suitable your dough will not rise. This is no different to the brewing process where yeast, through some form of ancient magic, transforms sugars into alcohol. The main enemies of yeast in brewing are excessive light and heat. Too much of either will turn an ‘ale’ into a ‘fail’.
These were manageable problems in dark and cold England where supply lines were relatively short – beer could be taken from the breweries in Burton-on-Trent to London in a matter of days – but it was quite another thing to transport beer intact from the docks of London to the port of Bombay, a journey of several months and several thousand miles through equatorial waters. Many people didn’t survive that trip in the best condition – the poor beer never stood a chance. But where there is consumer demand and the potential for vast profits, there will always be entrepreneurs willing to devise a solution. And so it was that the crafty brewers came up with an answer which was both simple and satisfying: add more hops.
Hops are a climbing plant, similar in nature to a beanstalk, which produces flower clusters comparable to a small, green, densely compacted pinecone. The function of these flower clusters, and the need for so much fuss over them, is twofold: (i) they provide a bitter quality to beer which counteracts the sweetness of the malt and, crucially for our story (ii) they prevent spoilage. In simple terms, hops are a brewer’s miracle – a natural antibiotic against ‘bad’ bacteria which also encourages yeast fermentation. This is exactly what the colonial beer-lovers needed. To ensure a beer would survive the perils of global travel, brewers simply had to add more hops to the more traditional ale recipes.
And with that, the problem was solved. Well, half-solved. While the addition of the hops meant the beer would travel further without spoilage, it also meant the flavour profile of the beer had changed significantly. Imagine, if you will, having only drunk tea all your life then one day trying coffee for the first time. Yes, it is more bitter, but not altogether unpleasant. The change towards highly-hopped beer would have had a similar effect.
As is the case with changing trends and tastes, consumers are invariably attracted by the exotic nature and associations of new products. The only difference with IPA was that it was a domestic product made for export, rather than a foreign imported product such as sugar, cinnamon or any number of other spices. Therefore, in a strange quirk, during the period when the East India Company represented the forefront of British imperial ambition, it is likely the domestic market for IPA’s was initially almost entirely based overseas.
It is open for investigation whether the rise in popularity of IPA domestically in Britain came about separately to the developing trade of the product in India, or whether it was driven later on by soldiers who had developed a taste for the beer while serving in the Raj and had brought their newly acquired tastes home with them. It is hard to see the shrewd brewers missing out on an opportunity to flog more product given half a chance, but whatever it was the IPA was certainly a hop hit at the right time.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and IPA’s are still around – bigger, better and even hoppier. Now that the IPA’s journey on the sea has taken it as far south as possible, the focus has moved from tradition towards innovation, something which suits Australasian brewers perfectly. Riding the wave of a rapidly increasing worldwide trend towards craft beer, both Australia and New Zealand are producing some outstanding interpretations and variations of the IPA style which is helping to drive local markets and educate consumers. In a way this is a fitting testament to the origins of the beer and its long history.
Australia: Mountain Goat ‘Rare Breed’ IPA. Brewed by Mountain Goat Brewery in Victoria, this is a limited release so may be slightly difficult to get a hold of. Also watch out for the ‘Rare Breed’ Black IPA and the ‘Seedy Goat’ Coffee IPA.
New Zealand: Hopwired IPA is a heavy-hitter from Marlborough. This brew is consistently rated amongst the best in the country by connoisseurs and is made by 8 Wired, the recently-crowned Champion Brewery at the Brewer’s Guild of New Zealand Beer Awards.
If you would like to learn more about the history of IPA, an entertaining and approachable source is the part-travel, part-history book titled ‘Hops and Glory’ by Pete Brown, published in 2009. In it, the author replicates the journey from England to India by sea with a barrel of specially-brewed 1830’s style IPA.
- waterandhopsandmaltandyeast posted this