IPAs (or India Pale Ales) are one of the most popular beer styles today, but where does the name IPA come from? There are a few popular more well know stories out there, and, as we’ve done with finding out why it’s named porter, and why it’s named bitter, we’ll drill down why the beer style is called IPA to see if we can find the truth.

The IPA is just a bigger version of a pale ale. IPAs typically have more hops and more alcohol than a pale ale, making them more bitter, having more hop flavours like florals or spices, and are alcoholic. But why the name India Pale Ale? What does that have to do with India? What does India have to do with what is essentially just a big pale ale?

The popular story behind the IPA

The most popular story, and the one (not surprisingly) listed on Wikipedia as well as the top hit on Google, is that the humble pale ale wasn’t fit for the six month voyage from England to India.

This was the early 1800’s, and trade ships with the East India Company would have to sail around Africa, crossing the equator twice and going through various climates, all in an unrefrigerated ship. This didn’t bode well for a standard pale ale sitting in a barrel. With this, beer couldn’t be brewed in India because it was too hot.

By the time the ordinary pale ale reached India, at best it was stale and had some off flavours, at worst the beer was infected and undrinkable. This beer was meant for colonial troops, and without beer, troop morale goes down.

So the hops and the alcohol was increased for the long trip to India and the India Pale Ale, or IPA, was born. Even if the extra hops and alcohol didn’t act as a good enough natural preservative, they probably did wonders to mask the off flavours and, since there was more alcohol, made those drinking it not care so much.

Going further into the history, the style really took hold as trade with Russia diminished (according to Wikipedia, again) and, in order to stay in business, breweries changed markets and started shipping to India. As the style was more widely made, it became a part of history and eventually evolved into the American IPAs we know today.

Going deeper into the story of the IPA – getting closer to the truth

This is only part of the story though. The popular story makes it sound like brewers suddenly just started adding more hops and alcohol to their recipes and the IPA was born! It was a bit more complicated than that and there was a bit more trial and error.

According to the Smithsonian, it wasn’t pale ale that the British were drinking in India, but porter. After all, porter was the most popular style of beer in London at the time. However, porter isn’t exactly the best type of beer for the climate of India. Either way, while porters are strong flavoured enough to mask off flavours, after six months at sea, they still weren’t great. The British living in India weren’t having it.

Finally, a brewer by the name of George Hodgson offered something different: a barley wine. Barley wine had increased in popularity with the more wealthy English people as constant problems with France had made grape wine more difficult and unreliable to get. Barley wine worked just as well and would often be aged for decades. So it easily made the trip to India.

The barley wine was a success, and soon Hodgson’s brewery, the Bow Brewery, had monopoly on beer shipments to India. This was to the dismay of the powerful East India Company who sought to find a supply of their own.

And the stories diverge…

The stories generally agree, especially as pointed out by Zythophile, that over time the barley wine got more laid back and gradually started to move towards the English IPA style we’re interested in today. However, Hodgson had a virtual monopoly on shipments to India (according to the Smithsonian), so most likely, the evolution of the style was limited.

Some stories say that the East India Company enlisted Sam Allsopp (who was primarily a porter maker) to try and recreate Hodgson’s beer, which by this time, was likely less robust than the original barley wine that started the trend. Allsopp’s beer didn’t impress the East India company, but a version of it still shipped and a bit of competition was born! With the monopoly over, the style was allowed to evolve as per demanded by the market, and we eventually got something similar to what we have today.

The other stories simply say that other export ales were developed even when Hodgson had the monopoly and simply shipped elsewhere. After all, this was the height of the British Empire, and there were a myriad of colonies all needing beer. It’s just that India was such a large market, and continued to be a very large market, that “pale ale prepared for the India market” became the popular moniker. This eventually became India pale ale, which simply became IPA.

As with most beer naming conventions, there’s probably an element of truth and an element of embellishment in all parts of that story, but, wherever the truth lies, it’s deeper than the simple “it’s just more hopped so it can make it to India.”

Tell that to the bar tender next time you order an IPA.