How the India Pale Ale Got Its Name

A look to the hoppy brew’s past brings us to the revolution in craft beer today

(© Michael Tercha/ZUMA Press/Corbis)
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The British Indian army was parched. Soaking through their khakis in the equatorial heat, they pined for real refreshment. These weren’t the jolly days of ice-filled gin-and-tonics, lawn chairs and cricket. The first Brits to come south were stuck with lukewarm beer—specifically dark, heavy, porter, the most popular brew of the day in chilly Londontown, but unfit for the tropics. One Bombay-bound supply ship was saved from wrecking in the shallows when its crew lightened it by dumping some of its cargo — no great loss, a newspaper reported, "as the goods consisted principally of some heavy lumbersome casks of Government porter."

Most of that porter came from George Hodgson's Bow brewery, just a few miles up the river Lea from the East India Company's headquarters in east London. Outward bound, ships carried supplies for the army, who paid well enough for a taste of home, and particularly for beer, but the East India Company (EIC) made all its profit on the return trip, when its clippers rode low in the water, holds weighed with skeins of Chinese silk and sacks of cloves.

The trip to India took at least six months, crossing the equator twice. In these thousand-ton ships, called East Indiaman, the hold was a hellish cave, hazy with heat and packed gunwale to gunwale with crates and barrels that pitched and rolled and strained their ropes with every wave. While sailors sick from scurvy groaned above, the beer below fared just as poorly. It often arrived stale, infected, or worse, not at all, the barrels having leaked or broken — or been drunk — en route.

Hodgson sold his beer on 18-month credit, which meant the EIC could wait to pay for it until their ships returned from India, emptied their holds, and refilled the company's purses. Still, the army, and thus the EIC, was frustrated with the quality Hodgson was providing. Hodgson tried unfermented beer, adding yeast once it arrived safely in port. They tried beer concentrate, diluting it on shore. Nothing worked. Nothing, that is, until Hodgson offered, instead of porter, a few casks of a strong, pale beer called barleywine or "October beer." It got its name from its harvest-time brewing, made for wealthy country estates "to answer the like purpose of wine" — an unreliable luxury during years spent bickering with France. "Of a Vinous Nature" — that is, syrupy strong as good Sherry — these beers were brewed especially rich and aged for years to mellow out. Some lords brewed a batch to honor a first son's birth, and tapped it when the child turned eighteen. To keep them tasting fresh, they were loaded with just-picked hops. Barclay Perkins's KKKK ale used up to 10 pounds per barrel. Hodgson figured a beer that sturdy could withstand the passage to India.

He was right. His shipment arrived to fanfare. On a balmy January day in 1822, the Calcutta Gazette announced the unloading of "Hodgson's warranted prime picked ale of the genuine October brewing. Fully equal, if not superior, to any ever before received in the settlement." The army had been waiting for this — pale and bright and strong, those Kentish hops a taste of home (not to mention a scurvy-busting boost of antibiotics).

The praise turned Hodgson's sons Mark and Frederick, who took over the brewery from their father soon after, ruthless. In the years to come, if they heard that another brewer was preparing a shipment, they'd flood the market to drive down prices and scare off the competition. They tightened their credit limits and hiked up their prices, eventually dumping the EIC altogether and shipping beer to India themselves. The suits downriver were not amused. By the late 1820s, EIC director Campbell Marjoribanks, in particular, had had enough. He stormed into Bow's rival Allsopp with a bottle of Hodgson's October beer and asked for a replica.

Allsopp was good at making porter — dark, sweet, and strong, the way the Russians liked it. When Sam Allsopp tried the sample of Hodgson's beer Marjoribanks had brought, he spit it out — too bitter for the old man's palate. Still, India was an open market. Allsopp agreed to try a pale. He asked his maltster, Job Goodhead, to find the lightest, finest, freshest barley he could. Goodhead kilned it extra lightly, to preserve its subtle sweetness – he called it “white malt” – and steeped a test brew (legend has it) in a tea kettle. The beer that barley made was something special too: "a heavenly compound," one satisfied drinker reported. "Bright amber, crystal clear," he went on, with a "very peculiar fine flavor."

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IPAs were high class. To recreate Allsop’s legendary brew, I'd need the best ingredients available today, and that meant Maris Otter malt and Cascade hops. If your pint smells like a loaf of country bread, if you could almost eat your beer with a knife and fork and slice of sharp Wensleydale, if one sip swims in Anglicized visions of hearths and hay lofts, chances are these images are conjured by Maris Otter barley. Maris Otter is a touchstone for British and British-style beer. A hardy winter-harvested barley prized for its warm, full tones, its taste might be traditional, but its provenance is modern. Maris Otter was first developed in 1966 at the Plant Breeding Institute on Cambridge's Maris Lane. Those were dark days for British beer. Cheap, low-brow milds dominated the pubs, and an expensive grain like Maris Otter never quite caught on with big brewers. (Fullers was an exception and Maris Otter is one reason its London Pride is so admired.) Maris Otter almost vanished. By the 1990s, no one was growing the barley at all. What grain stores were left in the few old-timers' barns was all that remained, the last aromatic breath of a golden age. Then, in 2002, two companies bought the rights to the heirloom strain, and Maris Otter started popping up again.

For hops, I went straight to the source. I met John Segal, Jr., a few years back over a plate of local duck at the Lagunitas Brewing Company's backyard beer garden in Petaluma, California. He was wearing a sterling silver, cowboy-style belt buckle emblazoned with a pair of twirling hop vines. Our conversation quickly turned to beer. Segal is a hops farmer in Washington's Yakima Valley, the hop world's Napa. The Segals are a dynasty there. John's dad wore a matching buckle. His son wears one too.

What Maris Otter is to British beer, Cascade hops are to American. Thanks to high-profile flagships like Sierra Nevada's Pale and Anchor Brewing's Liberty, American pales are defined by the spritzy grapefruit blossom nose of Cascade hops. And John Segal grew them first. As influential as Cascades are, they're relatively new. Like Maris Otter, their roots go back to the late '60s. The American hops industry had never fully recovered since the one-two of Prohibition and a plague of the hop-withering parasite downy mildew in the late 1920s wiped out the crop and many of its buyers. Farmers grew almost entirely Clusters, a workhorse bittering hop, leaving the specialty strains to Europe: Coors Light's image may have been all-American, but its spicy-sweet nose was decidedly Teutonic, from aromatic Czech and German strains like Hallertau Mittelfruh.

But when a fungus-spread epidemic of vertcillium wilt in the 1950s cut the Mittelfruh harvest and inflated prices, American brewers — already wary of the Cluster monoculture's susceptibility to a similar outbreak — started pushing for homegrown diversity. Coors talked to the Department of Agriculture, who talked to some breeders, who talked to John Segal, who planted a few samples of a hybrid strain he called “USDA56013” in 1968. Four years of test brewing (and a name change) later, and Coors bought Segal Ranch's first commercially available crop of Cascades, paying a dollar a pound at a time when most growers were lucky to get half that. Two years later, a fledgling San Francisco start-up called Anchor bought some for a new beer they were making, Liberty Ale. Liberty shocked American palates, the Cascade's citrus bite too aggressive for most. But growers saw its quality, and corresponding price, and Cascades soon swept the valley. Today, Liberty is a craft beer common denominator, and Cascades are an icon. I asked John for a sample, and a few days later a zip-tied bag of bright green leaves landed on my stoop.

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I brewed carefully, watching my temperatures to the degree, lest my grains steep too hot and, like over-brewed tea, leech bitter tannins into the brew. I made sure not to boil my hops too vigorously or for too long, to keep as many of their fragile, volatile oils intact. I carefully cleaned and sanitized a fermenter and added an all-purpose, classic yeast strain — with none of abbey yeast's fruit or saison's pepper, called "Whitbread Ale" and described, lamb-like, as clean, mild, and delicate. I gave my beer time. I was gentle. I was patient. And then I sent my beer to India – symbolically.

First, safety: I added an extra handful of hops, a preservative boost for the aging time ahead. Then — no room for barrels in my galley-size kitchen, and no hold below-deck in my fourth-floor apartment — I simulated a wooden cask by sprinkling a handful of toasted oak chips into the fermenter. I banished the brew to the top of the fridge, the warmest, dustiest corner I could find.

Six months later, a bright January day felt equatorial enough to announce my IPA's arrival and dust off the jug for a taste. The beer-logged hops had settled to the bottom. A few wood chips remained afloat. In between, the beer was clear, pale, and sparkled through the dust. I siphoned out a glass — opting against refrigeration in the name of authenticity, I sipped it warm. I thought that months steeping with sodden leaves and lumber would stain the flavor of pure-bred hops and malt. I anticipated old and stale; traditional IPAs could not have been as great as the fantasy. Those thirsty soldiers would have relished any taste of home, their palates primed by want. Instead, the beer I made was fresh and flowery, finishing with just a touch of caramel sweetness, like a dusting of toasted coconut. Quenching and bright, a taste of spring in the dead of winter, a glimpse of the south-Asian sun. What I thought would be flat tasted alive. Exactly as good beer should, no matter how old.

Editor's note, April 14, 2015: We have made a few slight changes to the above text to avoid confusion where there are discrepancies in the historical record and corrected the spelling of Frederick Hodgson's name.

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