What is IPA really?

Photo by Abyan Athif

Let’s start with the basics: IPA stands for India Pale Ale. It is a diverse beer type, with at least 10 different IPA styles out there. Broadly speaking, we can characterise IPAs as hoppy, mid-to-high strength artisanal beers with generally strong levels of both flavour and bitterness. ABV (alcohol content) is generally 6-9%, and though they are made with the same four ingredients as most beers (water, yeast, malt and hops), brewers will go heavy on the hops, which gives IPAs their distinctive bitter taste.

The IPA craze 

IPAs have spearheaded the craft beer revolution and are here to stay. If you walked into a pub fifteen years ago and asked for a pint of dry-hopped pale ale and a hazelnut stout, the bartender would have looked at you like you were asking to purchase a stuffed pelican. 

In turn, this has helped independent breweries grab market share off the big commercial breweries and, most importantly, it has provided us with better beers and a lot more options. 


An origin story

The rise of IPA started a long, long time ago, and for a simple reason: people were thirsty for good beer. Soldiers – stationed across India and various trading posts in Southeast Asia – missed friends, family, and more than anything the delightful taste of good beer. 

The problem was, the beer they were getting wasn’t particularly good. These were pre-Suez Canal days and voyages would often last 6 months, by which time the beer had often spoiled. 

Further to that, as William Bostwick (who was around at the time) explains, most of the beer was “dark, heavy porter, the most popular brew of the day in chilly Londontown, but unfit for the tropics.” They were getting winter beers, when what they really wanted was something more sessionable, brewed for cloudless skies and palm-tree days… 

George Hodgson

The O.G. IPA

Enter George Hodgson, who is about to have his moment. Hodgson was a London Brewer and the man who made IPA famous in the 1780s. Though some ales were believed to have been drunk in Madras at least 50 years earlier, Hodgson was the first one to make it big with his “October Ale”.

It was a beer born in London and barrel-aged at sea, drawing inspiration from the wine-making process. When it finally arrived in India and other trading posts like Singapore, the beer blew everyone away. 

Genius, or just plain lucky?

It’s safe to say that the maturation went better than Hodgson could have ever anticipated, and whether he even meant it is still up for debate among beer scholars. What was unquestionable was that the October Ale’s bright hops and strong flavours were both pleasant and nostalgic, and much better suited to drinking in the hot climate. 

Over time, because of the increasing demand for ale in India and Hodgson’s own contacts with the East India Company, the beer became known as East India Pale Ale, and eventually just plain old “IPA”. 

Craft beer comes full circle

George Hodgson helped to pioneer the trade that London breweries, such as the original Lion Brewery Co, would come to dominate throughout the 1800s and into the 20th century, until IPAs and their ilk strangely fizzled out of favour and were forgotten… (more on that another time). 

Thankfully for us, and for the greater good of the world, IPA and other ales were to have another chapter. They were raised again in hop-forward 1970’s America by those who—not too unlike those soldiers on so-called hardship postings—just wanted to drink great beer. 

Cheers to that!



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