Where is the India Pale Ale (IPA)? Hint: It’s not in India.
The India Pale Ale, or IPA, is as elusive as a Bengal tiger, as flavorful as chana masala, and sought after by virtually every Western expat — as well as some Indian’s. It is a beer without equal and without boundaries. It is the thirst quenching, dry-mouthed, aromatically hoppy king of craft beers, and there isn’t a decent one on all of the Indian subcontinent — save what I and a few other expats bring with us when we return from a trip.
The IPA came into being not because anyone was Jonesing for a bitter, high-alcohol, beer — although who could blame them if they were — rather, the IPA developed as an answer to the question: How do we get drunk on good beer in a country with temperatures as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit?
The British Army in India in the late 1700s was made up of demanding limey’s yearning for the tastes and comforts of home — a lot like expats today. India’s climate, namely the heat, did not lend itself to beer brewing(1). As a result, beer was shipped to India by the East India Company; however, there were two problems…
First, the popular beer of the day was the Porter, a dark, heavy brew. Although perfect for cool, damp London nights, the Porter was not well received in the Eastern British Empire. In London, a porter could be served at room temperature, which anyone whose ever overnighted in London knows is as good as chilling it. Refrigeration was not much better in 1785 India than it is today. As a result, the same room temperature porter’s being poured on the subcontinent were closer to black, tarry sludge than beer.
Second, most lower alcohol by volume (ABV) beers do not age well in uncontrolled environments, like the cargo holds of 1700’s era ships where cleanliness looked — and probably smelled — like an outhouse at the bottom of a damp, hot coal mine. The journey from London to India took at least six months and involved two equator crossings(2), meaning the beer often arrived a little skunky, and sporting some off-flavors and smells that would make a billy goat vomit. Sure, desperate soldiers being who they are probably still drank it; but like the Kingfisher I had two nights ago, it likely resulted in morning-after loose motions.
After a considerable amount of time and a number of pints, a London brewer named Hodgson thunk up an idea: Why don’t we hop the crap out of beer and boost the alcohol before shipping to India? It will taste like the sweat from a horse’s arse, but should survive the journey if the ship doesn’t sink. Coincidentally, Hodgson was already distributing in limited quantities a strong, heavily hopped beer called October ale, a barleywine, that he could use as a test bed for his plan. Well, wouldn’t you know it, he was right — Brits know beer like NASA knows space — and wrong, the beer survived the trip and it didn’t taste half bad(3).
Hodgson created a lighter, hoppier, high octane version of his barleywine for the stiflingly hot, dusty British Indian army market, making the India Pale Ale a staple until 1947, when the Brits left the country and took all the good beer with them.
The story would end there, except for the creativity, thievery, and intemperance of a bunch of American brewers. In 1993, Harpoon Brewery released it’s Harpoon IPA based on a traditional English-style IPA, but modified to use American hops and a proprietary yeast(4). American’s took to the new dry, hoppy, bitter beer like a Frenchman to stinky cheese.
American’s yearned for better beer. Although craft brewing’s comeback started in the mid 1970’s, a strengthened economy and increased affluence in the 1990’s fueled the American craft brewing revolution. Soon brewers from Oregon — Deschutes Brewery’s Fresh Squeezed IPA is simply awesome — to Vermont — Hill The Alchemist’s Focal Banger IPA totally rocks — were turning out the best IPA’s in the world.
The IPA eventually made a resurgence in the UK, although some would argue UK IPA’s are more mild than their American counterparts. What started out as Hodgson’s October ale was probably not much of an IPA by today’s standards. The American’s, being American, stole the Brit’s great idea along with their recipe, then improved on the model — you may disagree with that last statement if you’re British, but you would be wrong — bringing us the strong, aromatic, high octane, bitter, refreshing IPA expats miss in India today.
Where is all the IPA?
Which brings us to India and the case of the missing IPA. The following is the missing person’s report filed when IPA disappeared:
9 September 2016
Mr. India Pale Ale was discovered missing from the entire country of India this morning. Last seen in 1947, his disappearance remains a mystery almost 70 years later. He was wearing a clay mug and smelled of hops. Although the police believe Mr. IPA may have known his kidnapper, there are no signs of foul play. His departure has left the country devoid of decent beer.
When the British left — or were thrown out, depending on who is telling the story — they apparently took all of the decent beer with them, including the IPA. There are attempts to return the IPA to India, mostly by local craft brewers in towns like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangaluru, and Hyderabad. But by most accounts, including my own, they are failing miserably.
People have a tendency to speak in relative terms when they are forced into situations of acceptance. Comparatively speaking, the beers that India’s craft brewers turn out aren’t bad; but then again, the benchmark is so low a snake couldn’t slither beneath it. Indian IPAs lack one simple yet key ingredient for any beer to be considered decent: flavor. Comparative evaluations only serve to remind people of India’s beer market paucity.
One explanation for the bland Indian beers, IPA’s included, is a lack of access to fresh ingredients. A brewmaster at one craft brew pub said that unlike the US and Europe, it is impossible to get fresh hops in India, “By the time we get them they are at least six months old.” As a semi-temporarily retired home brewer, I can say without a doubt that trying to brew with old ingredients definitely adds a level of complexity to brewing. But the ingredients are only the excuse masking a bigger problem: lack of courage.
The same brewmaster offered this comment about the flavor of Indian-made beers: “Their bland by design…they [Indians] will eat spicy, flavorful food, but want bland, flavorless beer.” IPAs are meant to be big, aromatic, bitter concoctions that even some regular beer drinkers prefer to avoid. In an attempt to satisfy a the micro population of Indian abstainers, the Indian craft beer market is brewing plain, white bread, small batch beer.
Brewing beer for the Indian palate makes some sense — after all, this is India — but there should be a sense of cutting edge creativity in beer brewing. Generations of brewers step out of their comfort zones every year to create beers that their customers don’t know they want until they taste them. The American taste for the IPA was inspired by Harpoon’s brewing of a seasonal IPA — American brewers were as surprised as anyone when it took off. Craft brewers in India need a lesson from those in the West: take risks.
Brewing is as much art as science, and great art is only born by the courage to take chances, grow, and experiment. Brewers should consider consumer’s desires; but they must create new, bold, exciting flavors consumers may not know they want. Indian brewers need to understand that beer is more than just drinking — although that part is fun, too — it is a journey through aromatic bitterness and savory gusto taken by a traveller in search of excellence. Once they recognize beer for what it is, they will discover a huge market for the IPA — and the luggage of hundred’s of expats will be a lot lighter.
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- Jeffreys, Henry. 2015. “A brief history of IPA.” The Guardian (online). https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/30/brief-history-of-ipa-india-pale-ale-empire-drinks accessed 16 September 2016.
- Bostwick, William. 2015. “How the India Pale Ale Got Its Name.” Smithsonian.com. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-india-pale-ale-got-its-name-180954891/?no-ist accessed 16 September 2016.
- Rotunno, Tom. 2013. “IPA Nation: How this ale became craft beer’s most popular style.” CNBC (online). http://www.cnbc.com/2013/11/15/ipa-nation-how-this-ale-became-craft-beers-most-popular-style.html accessed 16 September 2016.
Originally published at www.robertjrichey.com on November 5, 2016.