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The Complete History of The IPA: Part 2, British Bitters

Complete History of The IPA: Part 2, British Bitters

So when we last left the story of the IPA it was 1700’s England. Hops were the latest craze and new malting techniques brought pale malt to foggy old England. Together, the two ingredients came together to form the first prototype for the IPA… in the same sense that the Wright Brother’s plane was a prototypes of the space shuttle.  The basic idea was there but it was a long, long way from our modern ideal of the style.  Yes, it was brewed with pale ale malt. Yes, it was strong. (Very, very strong) And, yes, it used a lot of hops. But it was nothing like a modern IPA. It was more like a barrel-aged sour barleywine.

The mid to late 18th century, however, saw a couple developments that would bring some beers closer to the IPA’s that we know. First, the development of English Bitter and, second, the colonization of India. 

Beer Goes Bitter

Around the same time as the development of October beer, brewers started producing ‘mild’ ale with pale malt. The term ‘mild’ in this case was used to describe the amount of aging the beer was intended to undergo. As opposed to ‘stock’ ‘stale’ or ‘keeping’ ale, which was aged in wooden barrels for a year or more, milds were low alcohol and brewed to be consumed quickly. At the same time a few enterprising brewers started adding extra hops for more bitter beers which were, as one might understand, called bitters.

These highly quaffable beers slowly began to gain a following for their light flavor and high drinkability. And one area in Britain was leading the way.

It’s Literally In The Water

This is where Burton Upon Trent enters the story. Some time in the late 1700’s people began to realize that bitters brewed in this region of England were just… well… better bitters. The hop flavor was sharper; more pronounced. They had a certain ‘bite’ that made them especially attractive. The overall flavor was well-balanced and they made for exceptionally easy-drinking ales.

Eventually people worked out what unique trait that Burton Upon Trent had that nobody else did; mineral-rich waters. Specifically Burton had a high concentration of sulfates as well as other minerals. This subtle difference in water chemistry explained why London Brewers (who were stuck using calcium-rich water) made exceptional porters and stouts but couldn’t replicate the lighter beer produced in Burton. But it an effort to get close, brewers all over England started adding minerals to their brew water to replicate the sulfate-heavy water. This ‘Burtonized’ water became the go-to template for generations looking to recreate that unique ‘British Bitter’ flavor.

And the British Bitter began to flourish. Not only at home but abroad…

The Navy Runs on Beer

The standard narrative of the IPA runs something like this: The British, having just played Game of Flags with India, did what British people do wherever they go, settle in for a pint. Except, of course, they needed to ship proper beer in from Britain. Except that beer would go bad on the long trip. So they just needed some way to get beer to the new colonies…

But the real story, as is so often the case, is far more complicated. First, beer on British ships was not new. In fact the British navy and merchant ships practically ran on the stuff since they first put out to sea.  Water quickly became unsafe to drink in the wooden barrels they used for storage, but beer would keep the sailors happy and hydrated for voyages that lasted months. I’m thinking it also provided a decent moral as well since sailors were rationed as much as a gallon of beer a day. So wherever sailors went, they brought beer which helped fuel a taste and demand for British beer in their colonies around the world.  And among those, of course, was India.

As well practiced as they were, shipping a perishable product around the world, especially hot climates like India came with predictable problems. Beer that was light in alcohol would usually go bad and the strong beer that could make the trip really didn’t appeal to people sweating through another blazing hot Indian day. 

Brewers for centuries had been experimenting with ways to ensure that their precious cargo would arrive in a drinkable condition. Some shipped strong beers with the intention of watering them down when they reached their destination. Some even made a rudimentary extract out of their beer by boiling the wort down to a syrup so it could be watered down and fermented on arrival. But, despite, several experiments, no tried and true method evolved. Getting beer to India was just a a dicy proposition. That is until…

George Hodgeson’s IPA

Goerge Hodgeson and Bow Brewing is often credited with inventing the IPA and the story often goes something like this:

George Hodgeson was sitting around his house one day thinking about a problem. India was very far away. And very hot. And packed to the gills with thirsty British soldiers. He knew they would sure like a beer but there was just no way to get it to them. Just then, inspiration hit.  He sat up and declared, “Why, by Golly, I have it! I shall produce a new style of beer. One with extra hops for which to make the trip to India. It shall extra hoppy pale, if you will. Yes, and I shall call this beer the India Pale Ale. And in a few centuries, hipsters in Portland will toast my name as they drink of my hoppy goodness.”

With that happy thought, Hodgeson went to his brewery and crafted the worlds first India Pale Ale. 

But again, this is not entirely true.

The Complicated Evolution of IPA:

George Hodgeson did run Bow Brewing and he did ship quite a lot of beer to India. Some of those beers were pale ales, but they were also porters, browns and even October beers. None of them was ever sold as and India Pale Ale. In fact Bow Brewing never used the words India Pale Ale in any marketing. Bow’s Pale Ale in India was more or less the same as Bow’s Pale Ale in England. They did toss a few extra hops to make sure it would make the trip but it was still their house bitter. There was really nothing to differentiate it from any other bitter made at Burton Upon Trent.

Rather, the development of the IPA appears to be a slow, gradual process. One that steeped deep in the dirty businesses of brewing, marketing and distributing beer. And we will pick up that story in a couple of weeks.

2 thoughts on “The Complete History of The IPA: Part 2, British Bitters

  1. […] In my last segment, I talked about English bitters. In one of those strange convergences of history, pale malt began to rise in popularity right around the time of another discovery; namely the Goldings Hop. […]

  2. […] I mentioned in our history of IPA, the water in Burton Upon Trent, where the British Bitter gained notoriety, is legendary. Plus, the […]

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