The Myth of the Authentic IPA

From an advertisement for Whitbread IPA, 1935.
From an advertisement for Whitbread IPA, 1935.PA

Modern beer historians have done some wonderful work challenging myths about India Pale Ale. The one we’re interested right now is this, as expressed by Martyn Cornell in a post which then demolishes it:

North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early IPA specifications than do British brewers who, as a group, do not.

How did that belief arise? What was going on in the world of beer to convince everyone (including us) that, if a beer wasn’t strong and aromatic, it wasn’t a ‘real’ IPA? Here are four possible contributions to the development of that myth.

1. The Durden Park Beer Circle published, Old British Beers and How to Make Them, an influential collection of historic recipes, in 1976. We haven’t got our hands on an original edition but our 2003 reprint contains this on Hodgson’s India Pale Ale

…had an OG over 70, a hop rate of 2.5 oz per gallon… [and was] carefully primed and dry hopped before despatch to India. Fully matured by the tropical heat, India ale had a hop nose, full flavour and the luscious taste that only comes with an initially over-hopped ale that has fully matured.

2. Anchor Liberty, first brewed in 1975 using tons of the then new Cascade hop, was ‘inspired’ by the British practice of dry hopping, and its strength was similar to that of early nineteenth-century British IPAs. The brewery was old; their Steam Beer was a survivor of an earlier age; the beer had a faux-vintage label; and was brewed to commemorate American independence. All of that, perhaps, added up to a sense of historical authenticity it didn’t exactly deserve.

3. Though he barely mentioned IPA in his 1977 World Guide to Beer, Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s 1982 Pocket Guide (the one most people we’ve spoken to actually owned, because it was smaller and cheaper) describes the intensely bitter, hop-aromatic Ballantine’s IPA as a survivor of an earlier age of American brewing, descended from nineteenth-century British beers. It’s easy to see how this might have developed into the myth of the ‘more authentic American IPA’.

4. In 1993, at the request of Mark Dorber of the White Horse in West London, Bass brewed an IPA to a historic recipe. It was c.6.5% ABV with 84 units of bitterness, according to a contemporary Guardian article by Roger Protz (4/9/1993): ‘it’s like putting your head inside a sack of hops fresh from Kent. The aroma is pungent, spicy, peppery and resiny, and the hops dominate the palate and the finish as well.’

5. The excitement around the recreated Bass IPA, and the White Horse festival it was brewed for, triggered a brief historical IPA mania. Robin Young of The Times described IPAs brewed to nineteenth-century recipes as ‘the special fad’ of the 1994 Great British Beer Festival; and the 1995 Good Beer Guide reports on the preceding year’s ‘IPA fever’. The emphasis in most reports was on the authenticity and hop ‘oomph’ of these brews compared to supposedly ‘Bowdlerized’ modern IPAs.

Anyone else have any suggestions? Is there a c.1980 US home brewing text, perhaps, that makes the claim?

UPDATE: we have an answer, we think. Roger Protz’s 2001 book India Pale Ale (written with Clive Le Pensée) includes a detailed account of how IPA was ‘revived’ in the nineties, beginning with a seminar at the White Horse in 1990, followed up in 1994. There is much talk of Bowdlerizing and ‘true IPA’, and reports of a trans-Atlantic agreement on the bare minimum spec for an IPA: 5.5% ABV, 40 units of bitterness.

15 thoughts on “The Myth of the Authentic IPA”

  1. I was lucky enough to spend a month in New York 1973, and drank Ballantine IPA as often as I could (most US beer then was beyond dreadful). Growing up in Dorset, the only other IPA I can remember was Worthington White Shield, which was all my Grandfather ever drank, bar the odd cup of tea.
    These two beers were perhaps survivors of earlier styles, and conditioned my thinking as to what an IPA was/should be. This was confirmed by the Bass IPA at the White Horse (me being beer geeky enough in those days to travel from Greenwich to Parsons Green just to try it).
    I now realise, largely thanks to Patto’s research, that at different periods, low strength IPS’s did exist, and therefore to dismiss, say Greene King IPA as “inauthentic” is incorrect, but that’s not what I thought at the time.
    It seems wrong to claim that massively grapefruity IPA’s are more authentic though – when Victorian British brewers used American hops, they use them as bittering hops, because in those days people didn’t like the flavour of American hops.

    1. ‘to dismiss, say Greene King IPA as “inauthentic” is incorrect, but that’s not what I thought at the time’

      Same here. In fact, the first time Martyn Cornell gave us a well-deserved public slap-down was when we suggested that, if an IPA wasn’t 7.5% and full of Cascades, it was a fraud. (Wish we could remember what we’d read to give us that idea, though!)

    2. Great that you were able to experience Ballantine in the early ’70s, Rod.

      I grew up near Newark, NJ, USA which was the home of the Ballantine brewery, and the first beers I enjoyed when I came of age (actually, perhaps a bit _before_ I came of age) were Ballantine XXX Ale and most especially, their IPA. It certainly was unique for it’s time, and indeed, if it were still available in it’s original form it would probably surpass most if not all of todays beers that call themselves IPA.

      Their 1 year aged IPA long ago (45 years ago) not only conditioned me to what IPA should be…it downright spoiled me. As far as I’m concerned, just about every current take on the style pales by comparison. Only a precious handful of the new brews come anywhere close (and none are quite as good).
      Four 50 year old unopened bottles still sit on a shelf in my humble homebrew kitchen to serve as inspiration and taunt me… and they never fail to cause me to heave a sigh.

  2. I’m still looking for a brewer willing to take on an authentic Stock Pale Ale: 1060º, a shitload of hops, a winter out in the brewery yard in a wooden barrel, 4 months inside, then another 2 or 3 months to condition in the bottle. The whole process should take about 12 months.

    1. Ron –
      When I brewed your Lovibonds 1864 (?) XXXX, I did the first part, pretty much, and I still have a bottle, now with 30 months age on it, that we can try next time, but let me have a think about the barrel-aging………..

  3. Maybe this whole thing come from the assumption that the original IPA’s were what we would call today very “bitter” and aromatic. But were they really after having spent such a long time at sea?

    1. I think there’s something in the idea that people (consumers) read ‘highly hopped’, translated that to ‘hoppy’, and then took ‘hoppy’ to mean specifically ‘aroma-hoppy’.

      1. This is presumably why there’s such an obsession with drinking American style IPAs and double IPAs as fresh – and therefore as ‘hoppy’, for want of a better word – as possible, such as Stone Enjoy By, the tendency for breweries to tailor the beer with a short shelf life in mind, and the indignation when ‘old’ IPAs are found in beer shops. There’s a disconnect with the idea that after the long journey from the UK to India the last thing an IPA would be is ‘hoppy’. I’d love to see a brewery or two make an old style stock ale and age it in the manner of the UK – to India journey on a regular basis.

  4. It’s always amused me to see people berating IPAs as “inauthentic” just because they don’t match up to their mid 19th century counterparts and yet happily accept the natural evolution of other beer styles.

    1. It was a mid-Victorian reference (on Martyn’s blog) to “mild bitter ale” that did it for me. You’ve got to work it out: it was ale because it wasn’t beer, it was mild because it wasn’t old, and it was bitter because, well, presumably because it was bitterer than other ales. By implication, anything we now call ‘mild’ – from a 3.2% quaffer to Sarah Hughes’ Ruby at 6% – has only a coincidental relationship with what was sold as ‘mild’ 150 years ago.

  5. Reminds me of the peat craze a while back in the whisky world. Ardbeg and Laphroaig weren’t enough – the hipsters wanted more and more peat and smoke. Seemed to come to a halt when they figured out two things – you could only peat smoke barley so much, and the human nose can only perceive phenols to a certain level (whisky made with barley peated above 120ppm was pointless as a result).

    Just how many hops can you stuff into a beer without it resulting in diminishing returns?

  6. Jackson didn’t dwell on IPA in ’77 because he knew it was the same thing as pale ale, basically.

    I think the American IPA became thought of as the original form for no reason more complicated than that their industry issued labels that said the beer was IPA. In England, as Jackson noted from the beginning, the term had almost died out (but not quite, Gregory and Knock refer to at least one IPA they enjoyed on their tour of pubs in England in the 70’s). In America, in part due to the fame Ballantine IPA had enjoyed, craft brewers starting emulating not just the taste – arguably Liberty Ale did that in its way – but the nomenclature. “Oh, see, they are making the ‘true’ IPA that we’ve forgotten how to make because you don’t see the label on our pump clips or bottle labels any more”.

    Once it was cleared up – although again the very smart Jackson always knew this – that pale ale was basically the same as IPA, it became possible to classify British bitter as essentially that. Not touched with brett as the stocked pale ales probably were, no, but very much a true descendant of the real thing. I had a Holt’s in Manchester 10 years ago that shocked me with its bitterness – and this was years after tasting grapefruit wannabes.

    On the other hand, the American beers did have a more historical ABV than most current British pale ales – so that part of the claim was valid. Maybe IPA shouldn’t typically be 7.5% ABV but nor should it be, in historical terms, 4% ABV.

    Know what I think the stocked pales were like? Orval. Orval has the right orangey lightish colour, good bitterness – maybe close to what 83 IBUs would taste like after a sea journey to India – good funky brett from the inoculation of same, and good condition from all those ferments it undergoes, three I think.

    It’s like an eccentric cousin to modern English pale ale, which makes good sense to me when you factor all the history.

    Here’s another thing I give the Americans: a lot of their beers now are wood-barrel stored and then bottled unfiltered. Some of these are probably close to the old stocked pale ales due to that aspect of being long aged in wood.

    So as always, it’s complicated, there are answers, but they reflect multiple considerations, there isn’t one convenient explanation.

    Gary

  7. All beers – all human productions of any kind – crab across the landscape, even when supposedly remaining “authentic”. The transmission of any “tradition” is inevitably imperfect, even ignoring technical developments, changes in fashion and the like. Deprecating modern IPAs because they’re not like 19th century ones is about as useful as deprecating India because it’s not attached to Madagascar, Africa and Australia any more.

  8. That’s an interesting point Martyn makes, and I don’t disagree in theory, but in practice, especially in North America, the lure of the 19th century (in particular) is inescapable. It is why pale ale and IPA have become so popular: it’s tradition, stability, authenticity, all the things supposedly lost by the march of science. You can taste or so one is told what one’s ancestors did, the whole appeal of San Francisco steam beer was founded on that and it just developed from there.

    Some of the beer really was superlative then as numerous historical recreations show with enough fidelity in my view. All-malt generally is better than high adjunct. More hops is better than than less. Some of the beer, perhaps a lot, was probably not drinkable by modern standards. (Trawling through 100 years of the IOB’s Journal suggests that!). But we suspend disbelief, we buy into the romance of the gaslight, the dray, the hop “yearlings”..

    Gary

Comments are closed.