No, but there sure is an “I” in “IPA”

If you look at the world today – the conflicts in the -stan nations, tyrants, wars, and underdevelopment in countries that were once colonies of the European powers – you really have to wonder if all that was such a good idea.

But the age of Empires (the British one, to be precise) did gift us with one true bright spot, the India Pale Ale.

According to Ray Daniels’s “Designing Great Beers,” the IPA developed in large part because of a trade imbalance between England and its colony, India. I’m sure there’s no PERFECT DESCRIPTION OF EMPIRE inherent in noting that ships would arrive in England full of pilfered goods from India, and then, because India didn’t actually need England in order to be a fully functioning civilization was a terrific, mature colony, would often return to India empty.

Needless to say, freight costs from London to Mumbai (which the British, apparently hard of hearing, called Bombay) were pretty reasonable, and if you had a product that would sell, it would be hard to dream up a better scheme for producing profits. An East London brewer named George Hodgson saw the opportunity, but first he had to deal with some technical issues.

I know we’re all used to a pretty standardized product when it comes to beer, but imagine a world without refrigeration. Beer is produced by microbial action, and every home brewer understands that there’s a small risk of infection – “spoilage organism” – in every batch we make. Not only do we have access to sanitizing solutions and basic hygiene items like soap and toothpaste to keep our bodies (sort of) clean, we also have a lot of control over how our beers are stored. It’s likely that every bottle or keg has a certain level of spoilage organism in it, but these factors, along with the hops and ABV of the beer itself, prevent them from achieving sufficient numbers to thrive.

But imagine putting hundreds of cases of your homebrew onto an unrefrigerated ship, then sailing it along the equator for weeks at a time. That’s the situation the brewers of England were facing, and their innovations to meet that challenge created a new breed of beer.

The first change was to dramatically increase the amount of hops in the beer. Hops aren’t just a bittering agent, they also have anti-microbial action that helps to prevent the growth of bad germs in the bottle. There’s actually a good amount of research right now into the use of hops or hop extracts to replace antibiotics in poultry and cattle, a change that might give us a few extra years of utility on existing antibiotic strains.

The second change was to drop the amount of sugars used in the fermentation. By starting with a lower specific gravity, the brewers were able to fine tune the fermentation to leave fewer sugars in the bottle – and less food for spoilage organisms.

The result was a very dry, very hoppy beer that would remain stable throughout the long, hot voyage to India. And once it arrived, it was a huge hit.

It would be a few centuries before craft brewers in the former colony of America, armed with hops grown in the west coast regions that were just opening up when the style was born, would transform the IPA into the broad spectrum of flavors that American beer drinkers crave – citrusy, grassy, floral, bitter.

So next time you’re watching the news and wondering how in the hell the world got into this mess, crack open an IPA. Think of it as drinking the silver lining, or a little taste of the brighter side of empire.

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