English IPA: History in a Glass

Style Profile by | Oct 2009 | Issue #33

Photo by Abigail Schneider

That English India Pale Ale is now regarded as a separate style is indictment enough of the sad state of affairs across the Atlantic. Here is the legendary English Ale, fit to be quaffed from a cask in a postcard London pub, intended to survive and actually improve during months at sea for export to India. The story behind this style not only recalls the creation of one of the world’s great brewing capitals in Burton-on-Trent, but it harkens the triumph of the British empire, a living, breathing emblem of might and power.

India Pale Ale: strong, hoppy and as proud as the Union Jack.

Taxation, temperance and taste changes weakened and dulled British beer over the decades. A century after the glory, with decidedly few worthy examples brewed in the UK, it is necessary to define English IPA as its own style—a style distinct from the modern and well-regarded variety of vigorously hopped American IPAs.

If England’s George Hodgson, generally credited with “inventing” the style in the late 18th century and shipping it to India, isn’t rolling over in his grave… well, fellow Brit Pete Brown certainly tossed another shovelful of dirt on his coffin with his superb new book, Hops and Glory (Macmillan, 2009).

Brown surveyed the English scene and—having enjoyed the likes of upstart American IPAs from Bridgeport, Dogfish Head, Goose Island, and Stone breweries—declared, “The Yanks were beating us at our own game, quite embarrassingly.” British versions, like Greene King IPA, are neither hoppy nor particularly pale. “Most IPAs sold in Britain today bear scant resemblance to the ales that went to India, beyond being wet and mildly intoxicating,” said Brown. At less than 4 percent alcohol by volume, they are “shadows of their former selves, just another of those arcane acronyms at the bar.”

English IPAs are so pitiful, so lacking in vigor or authenticity, Brown went to the trouble of commissioning a cask of something close to the 18th-century variety.

Brewed at the now-closed Museum Brewery at Burton’s Bass facility, Brown’s ale (he called it Calcutta IPA) was made with aromatic, English-grown Northdown hops and yeast from the town’s old Worthington brewery. Importantly, it was brewed with Burton’s trademark water, pulled from a well at the old Salt’s Brewery. Rich in gypsum, Burton water produces a sulfur nose and enhances the bitterness of ale.

A nice start. But then—in an act of supreme and typically British eccentricity—Brown embarked on the original journey of IPA, and personally carried the damn thing by plane, train, and ship from Burton to Calcutta.

The story of Brown and his cask is outstanding (you should buy the book), and it won’t ruin its ending to tell you that his English IPA—the first to reach India via its traditional route in 140 years—was exactly what you’d hope for when imagining the glorious history of this style: hoppy up front with a caramel malt body and a smooth, dry finish.

Of course, you don’t have to ship a cask thousands of miles to re-create one close to the original. Thankfully, a handful of English brewers—notably Samuel Smith’s and Meantime—make solid IPAs. And several Americans brew English-style IPAs, too, notching back a bit on those West Coast hops and pushing the malt forward on the palate.

But Brown’s story should be required reading for all of his nation’s brewers. Some day, perhaps, English IPA will once again rule the waves.

Aroma: Moderately high hops with light, toasted malt
Flavor: Medium to high hop bitterness with toffee- or cookie-like malt
IBU: 40–60
ABV: 5–7.5 percent
Examples: Meantime IPA, Fuller IPA, Ridgeway Bad Elf, Summit IPA, Samuel Smith India Ale, Middle Ages ImPaled Ale, Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn East India Pale Ale, Long Trail Traditional IPA

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