Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 37

What is an English IPA?

In North America, the term IPA has become synonymous with American IPAs and for many people it conjures images of juicy, hazy, New England brews. So, what is an English IPA?

As opposed to the more neutral malt base used in American-style IPAs, English IPAs have more biscuit, toffee-like or caramel malt flavours and English yeast adds a fruity character in flavour and aroma. Although English IPAs are still dominated by hops, the hops tend to be more aromatic and lower in alpha acids, or less bitter, than American hops showcasing earthy, spicy, peppery and floral qualities. An English IPA has more hop character and bitterness than an English bitter, but is far more balanced than most American IPAs.

History of IPA 

The India Pale Ale has a long and storied history, born in England and steeped in lore. The name IPA was reportedly referenced in print for the first time in an 1835 publication of the Liverpool Mercury. Prior to the official title of “India pale ale,” this category of beer was loosely referred to as “pale ale for India.” The first documented recipe for an IPA was included in an 1821 edition of Andrew Ure’s Dictionary of Chemistry, where he claims that fresh beer being prepared for export to India would have roughly four pounds of hops added per 32-gallon barrel.

IPA: A Commonly Told Origin Story

During the 18th century, there was a large colonial presence in India and a massive thirst for beer from its soldiers, sailors and civilians. Brewing conditions in India were less than ideal, so beer was imported from England – a gruelling six-month journey by boat. Many of the porters sent on these long seafaring voyages had spoiled by the time they reached Indian soil. 

In the 1780s, London brewer George Hodgson of Bow Brewery found the answer to this sudsy conundrum and started shipping strong, heavily hopped beer to India. These beers were generally aged for several years, so the beer not only survived the long voyage but was found to have improved immeasurably on arrival. Hodgson’s October ale was the prototype IPA that progressively became paler, more refreshing and suitable to warmer climes. 

Debunking the Myth 

By the 1760s, brewers well-understood the preserving qualities of hops and fortified all beer destined for warmer climates to safeguard from spoilage, including porters, which remained a popular beer in India well into the 19th century. 

Beer had been successfully shipped to India long before the “invention” of the IPA in the 1780s. Although there was some spoilage, beer could generally last for a year or so in cask, so there was no need to invent a new style of beer for safe exportation to India. Moreover, there is no evidence to support Hodgson, or any other brewer, with single-handedly devising a plan for the preservation of pale ales. The beer that would eventually become India pale ale was not a high alcohol-by-volume beer, but was around 6.5%, which was average at the time.

Advancements in early 18th century kilning techniques gave way to more pale ale options. Since the 1760s, Bow Brewery was among a number of other breweries that began creating beer similar to the modern IPA to fulfill the demand for refreshing brews that were more suitable for warmer weather. 

English IPA is a relatively new term used to distinguish the British-style from American-style IPAs that dominate the current craft beer scene. English IPAs pay homage and provide continuity to past iterations, celebrating the past while continuing to evolve as a contemporary beer style. If you’re looking for a malt-forward brew that showcases hops yet always strikes the perfect balance, this might just be the IPA for you.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)