Is the IPA myth a myth?

by | Pub tales




I try to stamp out every beer myth I come across, so when Virgil G. another beer blogger pointed out I may be perpetuating a beer myth in my Thanksgiving, Pilgrims, and Beer Myths article I was surprised (and somewhat embarrassed).  It would be pretty bad if I wrote an article about myths and perpetuated one of my own – especially in the same article.  Damn.

The IPA legend

The IPA legend goes like this.  Beer brewers were looking for a beer to take to India.  The trip to India is hard on beer, since the beer is exposed to dramatically high temperatures including crossing the equator twice and a very long journey over time and distance.  Time and high heat can be very harsh on beer.

George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery stepped up with his variation of the popular pale ale.  He increased the gravity of the pale ale beer (high alcohol) and added a ton of hops (highly hopped).  This new creation not only survived the trip to India, it seemed to improve the beer.  The India Pale Ale style was born.  At least this is the beer legend.

You’ll find this story in some form in just about every beer book and beer website out there.

My troublesome quote

So in my original article, where did I go wrong?  It was an article about pilgrims right, so where did IPAs come in??  IPAs came about in 1790, while pilgrims are sooo 1600s.   Here’s the questionable claim I made in the previous article:

“India Pale Ales (IPA) were created later in history specifically to make the long journey to India.”

Created is a bit of a strong word, and I think this is where I got into trouble.

bow brewery

How much of the IPA "invention" is myth vs. history

Where’s the myth?

Earlier this year, articles on The Zythophile titled “Myth 4: George Hodgson invented IPA to survive the long trip to India” and “IPA: Incredibly Poor Article” spread across the blogsphere.  These articles make the claim the IPA style is just an evolved style from the time, and suggest the Hodgson creation/invention/formulation is a myth.  To support this thesis, Zythophile makes the following claims:

  • Other beers, like porter, could make the trip to India
  • The October beer is similar to the IPA, and other brewers knew how to make strong, highly hopped beers
  • The market was very small before 1830, so why bother?
  • There is no evidence Hodgson created the style

It all seems so convincing, it makes me wonder why no one has said this before?  Even Michael Jackson (RIP) references this story in New World Guide to Beer.  Well I am not a beer historian, but there are several questions I have which would need to be addressed before claiming the story is debunked.

Let’s look at each point in detail.

Can other beers make it to India?

For the first point, yes other beers could make the journey.  Zythophile points out in a journal entry from Joseph Banks (on the Endeavour with Captain Cook in the South Pacific) the author enjoyed a porter stored on the boat for a year.  Banks’ porter is one example of a beer making it over a year on a boat.  Unfortunately this is what we call a sample size of one.  Actually I am sure a much higher percentage of beers made the journey (otherwise why bring beer at all), but the point is valid.  Just because Joseph Banks’ pint of porter made it to the South Pacific ok, it does not demonstrate there isn’t a problem shipping beer.

A beer won’t sour if it doesn’t become infected, but the odds of infection are greatly increased if the beer is exposed to heat.  Heat can also make beer go bad, which is why we go through so much effort to keep beer cool.  Heat will caramelize sugars and amplify and off-flavors in the beer, even if you chill it again.  If you doubt this, take your favorite beer and put it in the oven for an hour at 120 F, re- chill the beer and then tell me if it tastes like the same beer.  My guess is you will get aromas and flavors of cooked vegetables.

Even Joseph Banks made a point to note the recently tapped porter was surprisingly good when he wrote “a cask of Porter tappd which provd excellently good”.  It doesn’t really matter which way you travel to India from England, you must cross the equator twice.  A beer can make it (and many did), but the chances are not in your favor.  Because other beers can make the journey (in some percentage) is not a reason to claim there is no problem to solve.  If you ship 100 barrels and you lose some percentage of that beer to spoilage, you have a problem you need to solve.

On a tour through the Budweiser brewery, the tour guide noted very little beer was ever spilt (by design and significant effort) which resulted in thousands of extra cases of beer saved each year.  While comparing a modern Budweiser to the industrial age Bow brewery is not exactly fair, it does show small changes can make a large effect on the bottom line.

The October beer and the India Pale Ale ABV

This point is a bit confusing.  Zythophile knows the IPA was not a strong beer at the time (and states so), but then compares it to a barley wine called October beer which he lists with a starting gravity of 1.140 or higher (somewhere around 16% ABV depending on finishing gravity).  I guess the reason was to make the point a beer can last two years or longer, or to show other brewers were making stronger beers.

I doubt any beers on ships were very potent brews (I’m still looking for a historical recipe for ship’s beer).  The reason I do not think it would be a strong beer is drunk sailors do not work well, they fight, and tend to fall off ships.  Giving strong beer or barley wine to a group of men who are bored out of their mind on a boat for six plus months does not seem like a good idea.

The counter point to this argument is the beer was consumed in India, not on ships.  This is a fair point to which I agree, but it still suffers from the same problems.  Drinking a high alcohol beer in high heat (such as India) invites dehydration.  If they were shipping an October beer to India, I do not think it was a high alcohol beer.

  • October beers had OG of 1.140, much too high for an IPA
  • High alcohol beers cause dehydration when over consumed

Part of the evidence offered by Zythophile is an advertisement which states “select investment of prime London goods just landed from the HC [Honourable Company] ship Sir David Scott”, including “Hodgson’s warranted prime picked pale ale of the genuine October brewing, warranted fully equal, if not superior, to any ever before received in the settlement.”  I’m not sure what the advertisement means by “genuine October brewing”, but it does not sound like a barley wine.  The advertisement says pale ale.

The beer at the time served two purposes.  First the beer served as a healthy source of water.  Second the beer served as a source of vitamins and nutrients.  This is why the nutritional porter was so popular at the time, more popular than the pale ale.  The intoxicating properties were pure bonus.  Unfortunately beer is also a diuretic.  Both health benefits (water and nutrients) drop off dramatically as the beer becomes more potent.

The problem with all this attention on the alcohol content is it doesn’t matter either way, and it contributes to the IPA myth.  The IPAs of the time were rarely over 1.070 for good reasons I’ll discuss later.  High alcohol IPAs are part of the myth.  If October beer had a starting gravity of 1.140, this was not the IPA shipped to India.

The East India beer market was very small before 1830

This is true.  The first three decades saw little increase in the market with only about 9 to 10 thousand barrels shipped a year.  It didn’t grow to 20,000 barrels until 1840, long after the disputed “IPA discovery” in 1790.  But doesn’t this support the George Hodgson claim?

Only a small time brewer could take this market.  Larger brewers would not be interested in the market until there was a higher demand for the product.  This just shows fewer breweries were involved in the East India beer trade, and thus reduces the number of people who could have stumbled upon the ideal recipe.

east india company

How much beer really was sold in the East Indies? Not much.

A smaller brewer would also be much more susceptible to product loss.  If Hodgson lost any percentage of his product, he would feel it much more than a larger brewer.  As a smaller brewer, the Bow Brewery was under more pressure to solve any shipping problems.

The last thing to note is, while the market was shipping only 9 to 10 thousand barrels a year, nearly all of it was by the Bow Brewery.  The Bow Brewery only produced 11 thousand barrels a year for the first 16 years of its existence.  Few other breweries were shipping beer to India in the 1790s.  There was no India beer market before 1790, because Hodgson saw an opportunity and created the market.

  • The market was small, but so was the Bow Brewery’s production
  • Smaller brewers feel the financial pain of beer loss more
  • In the early years, most beer to India came from the Bow Brewery

There is no evidence Hodgson created the style

This is a negative proof.  It basically states there is no evidence X is true, so X must be false.  That’s a logic error.  To show Hodgson did not create the style, you would need to show another true IPA existed before Hodgson’s India Ale and was sold as such, Hodgson never produced the ale, some point in history much later where the legend changed (like the pilgrim myths of the early 1900s), or some other direct contradiction.

There were similar beers at the time, the IPA is an evolved style, but Hodgson’s India Ale had two distinct alterations to reduce spoilage.  The first is the addition of hops.  Hops are a significant anti-microbial agent, and adding more hops will preserve a beer for longer periods of time.

The second change will surprise you.  The second IPA change was not to increase in alcohol, but as I alluded to earlier, the recipe actually was created with a lower starting and finishing gravity than other beers of the day resulting in a much drier and lower alcohol beer.

IPAs were rarely created with a gravity higher than 1.070, because higher gravity beers will have more residual sugars.  The IPA beer at the time was a much drier beer.  Residual sugars are what attract spoiling microorganisms.  Contrary to popular belief, studies show alcohol (ethanol) levels less than 10% do little to prevent microorganisms.  The hops and polyphenols in the beer prevent spoilage, not a stronger beer.  A brewer at the time might not know microorganisms were spoiling the beer, but the brewer would know dry hoppy beers spoil less than sweeter maltier beers.

I think Zythophile is probably right that Hodgson did not create a beer style.  I do not think anyone came to Hodgson and asked for him to create a beer which could make it to India nor did he market the beer as a new style, but I do think he modified the pale ale recipe to extremes to reduce product loss.

  • Can’t negatively prove something, with an absence of evidence  i.e. – I can’t prove he didn’t kill her, so he must have killed her
  • IPAs of the time had lower alcohol compared to other beers of the day
  • Alcohol does not provide protection against microorganisms at low ABVs (<10%)

So where do we stand?

Hodgson was successful for several reasons: his beer, his brewery’s proximity to the ship ports, and his shady business practices.  IPAs probably succeeded other beers in India because it was lighter and dryer, both good qualities of a warm season beer (who likes porter on a hot summer day?).  He moved into the India market due to an imbalance in shipping costs, and though shady business practices he dominated the India market.

Hodgson did not create a beer style, but he likely reformulated an existing style to reduce product loss.  Whether he created a style, modified an existing style, or just got lucky it really doesn’t matter.  His beer had two qualities other beers shipped to India did not.  His India ales were hoppier and much drier.  Sure other brewers probably knew this combination would work to reduce spoilage, but Hodgson was the brewer who did ship this beer to India.

For these reasons his name is associated with the history of the IPA.

Yes other brewers were producing similar ales, but Hodgson’s beer was the pale ale shipped to India.  The market for beer in India was small, but as a percentage of Hodgson’s revenue the India market was huge.  If October ales were barley wines, I do not believe the IPA is a modification of this recipe nor has any relevance to the discussion.

Hodgson’s beer was known through lore and legend to be the first true India Pale Ale, if not actually documented anywhere.  So when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

What do you think?  Myth or not?  Let me know in the comments!

[EDIT: Zythophile had a rebuttal on the old site. I included it here so the comments were not lost]


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DJ Spiess

DJ Spiess

Beer buddy

I live in Denver, Colorado. This blog is everything about beer, wine, cider, mead and other spirits.
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby!