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

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