The Complete History of the IPA: Part 1 The First IPA

There is no style more emblematic of the American Craft Beer Revolution than the IPA. It’s a  style that dates back to pre-industrial brewing, perfected during the industrial revolution, and revived to become one of the most important, dynamic styles in our modern age. It’s born of brewing techniques as old as beer itself, the latest advances in biology and genetics and the ambition and ingenuity that are changing the landscape of the beer world as I write this.

So it occurred to me to write a complete history of the IPA. I hope your comfy because in order to do this, I’m going to cover a few hundred years of brewing history.

Welcome to pre-1700’s England. Would you like an Ale?

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, brewing was done at just about every conceivable level of society. On larger scales, inns made beer for their guests. Estates made beer for their workers. Villages had alehouses. But most homes, especially in agricultural communities, made beer for the family and their workers. And far from being considered the domain of surly, beardy dudes, as it is today, women -known as brewsters or alewives- did most of the brewing.

But recently, or since the 1500’s or so, a debate had been raging about this strange new ingredient that was appearing in more and more beer every year. Flemmish immigrants started cultivating a vine earlier in the century and it’s little green flowers were increasingly finding their way into England’s ale.

What is this ‘beer’? And why is it so bitter?

So there’s been a slight change in terminology in the past 700 years or so. Go figure.

Nowadays the term ‘beer’ refers to any fermented alcoholic beverage that uses barley as its base.  Ale refers specifically to a type of beer fermented with yeast that works at warmer temperatures.  But in the 1700’s if you asked the local drunk what he was drinking at the alehouse he would say… well… ale.  Ale was the term for fermented grains and water.

And before hops became common, brewers spiced their ale with anything and everything. Mugwort, wormwood, heather, sage, rosemary and yarrow were common ingredients. Occasionally even poisonous ingredients like hemlock, foxglove, or even deadly nightshade found their way into the ale barrel. (You’d think the name of the last one would have been a clue) But, just as often, ale used no herbs or flavorings whatsoever except for the barley, oats and wheat that made up most brews.

But there was this new type of ale going around brewed with hops. This hopped ale became known as ‘beer’ and was causing a bit of a stir. 

So just to be clear, for the purposes of this article. Beer has hops. Ale doesn’t.

Cool?

Cool.

Debates raged in the 1600’s over whether hops were even an acceptable ingredient for ale. I don’t know what what those debates were like but, for some reason, I feel like it would be remarkably similar to the arguments over hazy IPA’s today.

But gradually hops became more and more accepted as a means of preserving beer. Brewers noticed that beer brewed with hops didn’t go sour nearly as fast as ale brewed without. In England, brewing had always been a seasonal activity as the summers were too hot to ferment ale with any consistency. As hops became more mainstream, however, brewers began producing hoppier beers in late spring so they would survive the long, hot summer.

And as the world drifted toward the industrial age something else happened that changed the face of beer production.

Wait… Why Is This Beer… Yellow?

Okay quick primer on how barley becomes beer. Before a brewery can use barley it has to be malted. To make malted barley, the grains fresh from the field are covered with water until they germinate. Once the little seedlings start to emerge the barley is quickly dried over low heat. At this point the barley is considered ‘malted’ and is now ready to be milled and made into beer.

But drying was a problem in the age before industrial processes. It has to be done fast so the barley doesn’t rot. But not so hot that it ends up roasted.  And in the pre-industrial world, they did this one of two ways. Maltsters laid out barley to dry in the sun, or it was dried over a wood-fueled fire. And if you know anything about the weather in England, then you can guess what method was most popular there.

The problem is that it is hard to control the heat of a wood fire and so the barley tended to be brown by the time it was done. Not to mention that anything cooked over a wood fire tends to end up rather smokey. So in England, in this time period, literally every beer was dark brown to black and had an intense, harsh wood smoke flavor. It was better than drinking the water since that could have you strapped to Ye Olde Privvy for the rest of the day. But even by the standards of the time, the heavy smokey flavor was a bit much. Barrel-aging was a common method of letting these flavors smooth out before consumption.

But in the 1600’s the people of Britain started drying malt over coke fires. No not that kind of coke but sounds like fun, right?

So coke is coal that has been heated to the point that all the sulphur, hydrogen and other nasty gasses one would normally get from burning it are driven off. The result are nuggets of almost pure carbon that burn with no appreciable smoke. It was also easier to control the exact temperature of the fire so that now barley could be dried over lower heat which would leave it a nice, light color. And, thus pale malt was born.

So we’ve got pale malt. We’ve got hops. We’ve got the basic ingredients of an India Pale Ale. Britain has yet to play Game of Flags in Asia but that doesn’t mean that the basic idea of a hop-forward pale ale didn’t enter someones head.  And, in fact it did. In the 1700’s a new seasonal style emerged that is probably the earliest incarnation of an IPA. Brewed in October and November, this October beer was an intensely strong, intensely hoppy beer that was brewed and aged for at least a year. 

So hoppy beers did exist long before anyone took them to India. But before a Pale Ale could be brought to India it still had to be invented.  And in a couple of weeks we will talk about the English Pale Ale.

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