English IPA: Yes, you can call this India pale ale

IPAs are a very popular family of beers today, but most contemporary examples bear little resemblance to those beers that were once shipped to India. I normally don’t even say that IPA means India pale ale because it becomes strange to talk about beers that aren’t pale, or that never went to India (and some that aren’t even ales). But what we now call English IPA is the true ancestor of all of these modern beers, and a style worth remembering. However, many of the stories told about IPA are only partially true or miss certain details that lead to misunderstandings about the style.

Prior to the 2004 Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines, there was just a single India pale ale style. Think about that in modern competitions. The descriptions of that era were somewhat vague and did seem to recognize the differences in English and American interpretations but still lumped them together. To be fair, many American versions then were rather malty and deep in color. Judges just expected that there would be slight differences in hop and yeast varieties.

English IPAs in modern form are often quite different from American-type IPAs. So different that the BJCP separated English IPA from American-derived IPAs, placing the English IPA as style 12C within the Pale Commonwealth Beer style category along with British golden ale and Australian sparkling ale. While some purists would like all IPAs to be judged together, the style actually has more in common from a sensory basis with these other two styles.

The History of IPA

Before the 1700s, beers in general were brown and smoky. In the early 1700s, coke was invented (the fuel, not the soda), which allowed smokeless fires to produce pale malts. Previously, pale malts could only be made through air-drying. Pale malts were expensive when first produced, and were used in expensive beers like October beer, a strong, highly-hopped, keeping beer (a strong beer designed to be aged, a stock ale). These pale beers were often associated with country brewing, outside the cities of the time.

While many think of Burton-on-Trent as the home to India pale ale, it actually got started in London. IPA is a tale of two cities, indeed. In the late 1700s to the mid-1800s beer was exported to markets in India (and elsewhere) — not just a pale ale (October beer, most likely) but also porter and other beers of the day. While not the originator of the style, the first well-known brewer to dominate the market was George Hodgson at the Bow Brewery. Ruthless trade practices and a convenient location for shipping were likely more influential to its success than beer quality, as the carbonate London water was not ideally suited to producing pale beers.
The long journey with temperature changes and physical agitation helped mature the October beer at a faster rate, and it showed up in India in a better condition than if it had been simply stored in London. There is no evidence that Hodgson knew this would happen, or that a beer had been specially designed to ship to India. He was just fortunate that the beer was well received, and kept filling orders.

While many think of Burton-on-Trent as the home to India pale ale, it actually got started in London.

Trade with India wasn’t initiated with shipping IPA — the East India Company was founded in 1600, well before these beers were produced. There was a lot of money to be made with trade and the Hodgson family got greedy (the brewery was now run by descendants). Attempting to cut out the middle man and capture all the profit for themselves, they caused the East India Company to look elsewhere for beer. And they first talked to Samuel Allsopp from Burton in 1823.

Burton brewers at the time were hurting from the loss of trade with Russia. Allsopp was given a bottle of Hodgson beer and asked to replicate it. Clone beers were popular then, too, I guess. Allsopp didn’t just replicate it, he improved it. The sulfate-rich water of Burton was better for brewing pale beers, and customers in India vastly preferred them. The rest, as they say, is history. Bass and others began brewing the beers, and the trade for India pale ale, version 2.0, shifted to Burton.

The name India pale ale wasn’t used until 1830, despite this trade taking place for many years. While the Bow Brewery still produced their beer for India, its market share plunged drastically and the Hodgsons were out of business by mid-century. But Burton now carried on the tradition. The East India Company also didn’t survive the 1800s. It was nationalized in the mid-1800s and shut down in 1874. But trade continued.

By the 1900s, wars, taxes, and competition from lagers and bitters began to cut into IPAs. In the late 1800s, crystal malt was invented and IPAs became running beers (beers made for immediate consumption). The gravity kept dropping, adjuncts were added, and it essentially became a hoppy bitter. At under 4% alcohol strength, it also became much less interesting.

In the modern craft era, English IPA has had somewhat of a resurgence, although not like it once was. It was rediscovered in the late 1900s and early 2000s, often with the influence of beers in America that were originally inspired by writings of Michael Jackson and others on the long and storied style. As a modern beer, English IPA has returned to its Burton roots, albeit as a running beer. There aren’t as many examples as there once were, but many have that authentic feel that led to the style being very popular.

When Michael Jackson wrote the World Guide to Beer in 1977, he hardly mentioned India pale ale — he instead talked about pale ale and said that it once went to India. By the time he updated the Beer Companion in 1997, he was talking about the American IPA variant but bemoaning the weak nature of English IPA. As the classic style had been watered down, it lost its appeal but the name stuck. So, in modern England you can still find the weaker versions as well as the more modern craft versions that developed a bit later.

It’s interesting to note that the modern pale ales in England (and craft variants in other countries) are derived from the Burton IPAs. As I said, the original beers that became India pale ale were actually October beer. It was the Burton IPAs that were new creations, and those later spawned the pale ales that continue to today. Yes, there were previously ales that were pale, but the modern form of pale ale was based on what was created in Burton.

Sensory Profile

The classic features of an English IPA are that it is very pale in color, uses the best-quality pale ale malt, is heavy hopped in the kettle, and is dry hopped. It has extremely high attenuation and is a very clear beer. It wasn’t particularly strong for the day (once made in Burton) – exports were perhaps in the 7% alcohol range with domestic versions closer to 6%. Those may seem strong by today’s English beers but they weren’t strong for their era. They matured during the voyage, but were well attenuated before being put into casks. The oak casks were lined, and didn’t impart an oak flavor, nor did they introduce Brettanomyces.

English IPAs typically have a hop-forward character with a strong bitterness, hoppy aroma and flavor, and a dry finish. They are pale, from golden to deep amber, although most are quite pale, and they should be very clear. The malt has a bready, slightly biscuity flavor. Caramel-type flavors can be present, but not strong as this may suggest oxidation. The hop character is English, with floral, spicy, or citrusy-fruity notes, possibly a touch of grassiness from dry hopping.

The yeast can add a fruity note and, if Burton-type water is used, a sulfury-minerally flavor and aroma can be present. These qualities are typically restrained as the hops should be the dominant aroma and flavor. Alcohol levels are between 5 and 7.5%, so they shouldn’t have a strong alcohol flavor or warmth — light levels are acceptable.

The body should be medium to medium-light and the carbonation moderate. The beer should be very well attenuated, and have a refreshing, dry character with a hoppy aftertaste and a bitter finish. The hop intensity is often less than many modern American counterparts and the hops are not as aggressive. Still, the beer should be distinguishable from a bitter or pale ale in its hop character and strength.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

It’s an English beer so it makes sense that English ingredients and brewing traditions should be followed. Best-quality pale ale malt from an English maltster can be up to 100% of the grist. Maris Otter is very well-regarded, but other English pale ale malts can be used. American pale ale malt will not have enough flavor for this style; the English versions have more of a bready, biscuity, toasty flavor. Light amounts of biscuit malt or amber malt can be used to boost these flavors, but those should be present in sufficient quantities in the base malt. I’ve tasted homebrewed versions that are based on other malts, including Vienna malt, which are wonderful; however, in no way is that traditional.

English brewers traditionally use single infusion mashes, so that makes sense for this beer. As a well-attenuated beer, mashing for strong attenuation is a must, so choose a mash temperature on the lower side of the single infusion range (perhaps in the 149–151 °F/65–66 °C range). Mash temperature should drive attenuation, not the use of adjuncts. I would avoid sugars and starchy adjuncts that could dilute the flavor. Other specialty-type malts should be used sparingly, if at all. A touch of dark crystal malt or dark malt could be used to adjust the color if you desire a more amber-colored beer rather than the gold color you will get from an all pale ale malt rendition.

English hop varieties are common, especially for dry hopping. Goldings are the classic variety, especially from Kent, but other aromatic English varieties can be used. I would avoid American or New World type hops that could be a bit confusing in this style. Definitely include a bittering hop addition, flavor hops are optional as the bittering charge will still have some flavor, and a big aroma addition is a must (although this can be done as a dry hop addition). Freshness of hops matters with dry hopping, so again quality is key.

When brewing the beer, decide if you are making a keeping beer or a running beer. I’ve made both, and they are different in approach. For a keeping beer, you really do put in an absurd amount of bittering hops, knowing that it will be out of balance but eventually age into something drinkable. For a running beer, you are looking for a balance that will work after a short conditioning period. I once brewed a keeping beer based on Sister Star of the Sun, a popular internet recipe in the 1990s; it used 3 oz. (85 g) of nearly 17% alpha acid hops for bittering in a 5-gallon (19-L) batch. It took at least two years before it was drinkable and started winning awards like crazy, but I didn’t ship it to India to mature it faster.

A wide range of English ale yeast will work in this beer, although those that are more highly attenuative are preferred. Some yeast strains have a minerally note; those are okay to use, as are those that emphasize hops. Some strains say they produce malty beers. I would favor other yeast strains as those malty ones could be leaving the beer with more residual sugar, which would affect the dry finish. Fermentation temperatures are moderate, enough to encourage complete attenuation but not so high as to start producing fusels or other off-flavors. Some fermentation esters are perfectly acceptable here.

Some sulfate in the water is desirable, but it doesn’t have to be at the extreme levels in Burton water. Too much sulfate in the water leaves a sulfury aroma and flavor, and can start to make the bitterness too sharp and harsh. I worry about those aromatics overshadowing the hops, which undercuts the main feature of the style.

Homebrew Example

OK, this is about as simple as it gets: One malt, one hop, and single infusion mash. Who kidnapped Gordon? Well, after the last complicated recipe (roggenbier), I figured you might need to slow down and take a break.
When you only use a small number of ingredients and you don’t do extra work to transform them, you really have to make quality choices. So, don’t skimp with your ingredients selection. Now is the time to get out the Maris Otter pale ale malt. My personal choice is to use malt from Crisp; it always seems to clear very well. Fresh Goldings hops, East Kent Goldings if you can find them, will give a classic hop profile. A dry, attenuative, English ale yeast is necessary, and Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) fits the bill nicely. Alternatives would be White Labs WLP007 (English Dry Ale) yeast, SafAle S-04, or LalBrew Nottingham.

This is on the pale end for the style. If you want a little color and a touch more flavor, you could add in around 2% (maybe 4 oz./113 g) of an English extra dark crystal malt (something in the 120–165 °L range, from a British maltster such as Crisp, Fawcett, Hugh Baird, Simpsons, etc.). Mash on the low end of the range for a single infusion beer, 149–151 °F (65–66 °C), to encourage attenuation and finish dry.

The yeast can be a touch minerally on its own, so I don’t like to go overboard with the gypsum. Just a touch will help with a flinty dryness but not make it reek like hot springs. I’ve tried brewing English IPAs with Burton-like water profiles but I just don’t like the flavor of excessively mineralized beers. If you do prefer this flavor, you can increase the gypsum by adding an equal amount to the boil.

I chose against using a flavor addition of hops since that was traditional. If you’d like, you can shift some of the bittering hops (maybe up to 1⁄3 of them) to a first wort hop addition (put them in the kettle before lautering). Dry hopping will give a fresh hop aroma, which is characteristic for the style. The bitterness of this beer is balanced to be a running beer, so it doesn’t require excessive aging.

It does seem odd that what many people consider today to be an IPA is so far removed from the original source. It’s really nice to get back to your roots to understand the differences, so please give this one a try.

English IPA by the numbers:
OG: 1.050–1.075
FG: 1.010–1.018
SRM: 6–14
IBU: 40–60
ABV: 5.0–7.5%

Gordon Strong’s English IPA

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.061 FG = 1.012
IBU = 58 SRM = 6 ABV = 6.5%

12.5 lbs. (5.7 kg) British pale ale malt
16.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (60 min.) (3 oz./85 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
2 oz. (57 g) East Kent Goldings hops (dry hop)
Wyeast 1028 (London Ale), White Labs WLP007 (English Dry Ale), SafAle S-04, or LalBrew Nottingham yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 0.5 tsp. of calcium chloride and 0.5 tsp. of calcium sulfate to the mash.

This recipe uses a single infusion mash. Use enough water to have a moderately thick mash (1.5 qts./lb./3.1 L/kg). Mash the grain at 150 °F (65 °C) for 60 minutes. Raise the temperature to 168 °F (76 °C) to terminate enzyme activity then recirculate the wort for 15 minutes. Start the sparge slowly and sparge with enough water to collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort in your kettle.

Boil the wort for 75 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe.

Chill the wort to 64 °F (18 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete, allowing the temperature to rise to no more than 70 °F (21 °C) during fermentation.

Rack to secondary and dry hop for at least three but no more than seven days. Prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 2.5 volumes.

English IPA

(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.061 FG = 1.012
IBU = 58 SRM = 6 ABV = 6.5%

8.3 lbs. (3.75 kg) Maris Otter liquid malt extract
16.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (60 min.) (3 oz./85 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
2 oz. (57 g) East Kent Goldings hops (dry hop)
Wyeast 1028 (London Ale), White Labs WLP007 (English Dry Ale), SafAle S-04, or LalBrew Nottingham yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Use 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of water in the brew kettle; heat to 158 °F (70 °C). Turn off the heat.

Add the malt extract and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. Turn the heat back on and bring to a boil.
Boil the wort for 60 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated.

Chill the wort to 64 °F (18 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete, allowing the temperature to rise to no more than 70 °F (21 °C) during fermentation.

Rack to secondary and dry hop for at least three but no more than seven days. Prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 2.5 volumes.

Issue: October 2020