What Makes an IPA? A Look at Craft Beers by Industry Experts

15th Jun 2021

selective focus of hand holding half-full beer glass

Unless you’re completely new to the alcohol world, you’ve likely heard of IPAs, or India Pale Ales. You’ve also likely heard strong opinions about them on both sides of the fence. Some folks hate them because they’re bitter, and others can’t get enough because they’re obsessed with the hops.

However you feel about IPAs, we’re here to dig deep into their history and determine what helps a craft beer qualify to be in this category.

Why Is It Called India Pale Ale?

To answer this question, we need to dig into the history of what makes an IPA. There are rumors that IPAs began because it took so long to ship beer from England to India that brewers added more hops as a preservative. However, some folks say that isn’t true.

So, the origins of IPAs are a little murky. Here’s what we do know: pale ales have been brewed in England since the 1700s. They were lightly hopped and very different from the pale ales we know today. By the 1760s, brewers were being advised to add extra hops to beer being sent to warmer climates.

Among the first brewers to export pale ales to India was a man named George Hodgson who ran Bow Brewery. Now, here’s where rumors about what makes an IPA come in again. Some folks say Hodgson was the first person to figure out adding extra hops would help preserve the beer, but that idea is in dispute.

Hodgson’s brewery was uniquely positioned on the eastern edge of London. This is where the East Indiamen (the ships doing trading with India for the East India Company) did most of their trading (instead of on the way-too-busy River Thames). The East Indiamen traded on their own behalf, taking goods from England to sell to the East India Company’s locations in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta.

old fashioned ship at sea

Among the goods they would take was beer. Hodgson’s beer, to be precise, which is what makes it an IPA. His brewery was handily placed to supply the East Indiamen, so they traded mostly with him.

So, why is it called India Pale Ale? Because the East Indiamen frequently traded it. The interesting part is how long it took advertisers to reach this shortened name. Originally, in newspapers, the beer was called “pale ale for India” or the even longer “Pale ale prepared for the East and West India climate.”

The first use of “India Pale Ale” didn’t occur until an advertisement in The Liverpool Mercury newspaper in 1835. Even then, the shortened “India Pale Ale” didn’t catch on in popular usage for another decade or so.

What Makes an IPA an IPA?

There are no specific, legal requirements for a beer to be considered an IPA. However, in general, IPAs are characterized by their medium to high “hoppiness” (hops taste rather earthy and citrus-y) with a pronounced bitterness. Pale ales are usually lighter and less bitter, while IPAs run the gamut from hazy to dark.

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