The Amazing Story of India Pale Ale

It may not be the strongest beer, but India Pale Ale, or IPA, has the strongest story worth telling. Considered the next big craze in the bottled-beer section of India, its popularity is surging. What is forgotten, however, is its longstanding history. IPA is a beer that was produced for the subcontinent of India. And its origins dates to an era when getting grains on your plate was a luxury in itself.


It were the sultry and scorching summers of India in 1750s, a setup that the British East India Company invaders were not conditioned to reside in. That led to the creation of a new style of beer. Till then, the Brits were consuming a particularly heavy, dark beer back home called Porter. The supplies for the British residing in India were dispatched by sea. The trip took at least six months, crossing over the equator twice. Minus the fluctuating heat, it was the pitching and rolling of the barrels with every wave in the ocean, that would shake the beers. And, by the end of their journey render them undrinkable. Lukewarm, stale, tired, and jet lagged beers, often infected, weren’t the right fit for the chilled Gin-and-Tonic drinking denizens. 


Demand for beers was still there, since India didn’t produce beers till the 1820s. It was too hot for them to be brewed here. Edward Dyer, father of Colonel Reginald Edward Dyer of the Jallianwala Bagh massacreestablished Asia’s first brewery in Himachal Pradesh’s Kasauli. He sold it with a catchy tag – “as good as back home”. Till that happened though, with each poorly faired barrel reaching the Indian docks, the urge for a tasty brew only grew. They were eager to pay large sums for it. Captains of the ‘East Indiaman’ saw this as a good money-making proposition. This was also since the ships made all the profits going back home with loads of Chinese Silks and Indian spices, and none while heading east. Taking a chance, thus, was worth the effort and extra rupiya paisa.


While this was going on on the Indian front, the Anglo-French War of 1778-1783 broke out. All supplies of French wines headed for the Kingdom were cut off. Brits were pushed to seek a replacement on their local turf. Just a few miles up the river from East India Company’s headquarters in London, George Hodgson’s Bow brewery offered a few cases of a strong, pale beer to the army. It was termed the barleywine, or “October Beer”. They were brewed to be rich, syrupy, and aged for years to soften up, developing a Sherry-like reduction. And to ensure they lived longer, they were loaded with copious amount of bitter-tasting preservatives, called hops. In their words, it was “of a vinous nature”, and “to answer the like purpose of wine”.

This beer, when shipped to India, not only survived, but also improved during the gruelling journey. All this was through its higher alcohol and elevated hop counts. This was possibly the first template for IPAs.

India Pale Ale, as reported by Liverpool Mercury in 1835, became a big business overseas. They never took off in the domestic markets as the brewers kept the hops count low. This was primarily since the beers weren’t destined to travel much within the country. And as the British dominance declined, IPA died its natural death.


In the first half of the 1900s, The Americas was turbulent and its rebuilding after two major World Wars was slow. Once the necessities were met with, craftsmen went on exploring and reviving various skills, of which one was of brewing IPAs. The style had already existed in America but with the onset of Prohibition between 1920 and 1933, it had obliterated. Come late 1970s and mid 1980s, the American craft beer wave brewed a new life into the local scene. Brewers started playing with various hops, delivering flavours, strength, and a nerve of newfound freshness to their beers. By the 1990s IPAs were a full-fledged, trending beer style.

The country is gifted with over 100 styles of hops. From citrusy Centennial, fruity Citra, to the piney Simcoe, and mellow Willamette, you name it!There was a library of flavours to be explored. And not just that, a variety of yeasts, and array of grains and substitutes, a range of oak options, and personal touches from the brewers. Americans don’t believe in halves, then why would they do that with their hops? They started upping its inclusion and designed styles like Imperial, Double, Triple, and more. Using bigger and bolder hops, brewing upto a higher alcohol by volume, and accentuating the bitterness almost became a matter worth boasting, and deriving some higher sense of masculinity off of it. Amidst all this, beers were left undrinkable, or at least unpalatable.

Albeit all that, the craze gifted the world two major strengths. One, the confidence to experiment and go a tad loco. And the other, a vast variety of hops to toy with. 


Over the past few years, the tug-off war between flavours and bitterness in American IPAs has mellowed down. As the consumers are now looking for flavours over bitterness, the crazy battle of being the biggest, meanest, and the boldest brew is passe. IPAs today are dry beers with moderate strength, that have been attenuated from their primitive British avatar. That is, being dominated by hoppy flavours and aromas, and defined by their characteristic bitterness. For some, bitterness is not favourable, but with IPAs it’s their identifying typicity. 


A few years ago, if one asked for an IPA at the poshest of Indian microbreweries, the server would’ve drawn a blank stare. When Mohan Meakins took over the breweries from Dyer in 1949, they continued brewing, but shut down its IPA production, to focus only on the lagers. Since then things have only gotten worse. Till date, the Indian alcohol market is regulated by complex and cryptic rules. They favours local producers, stripping them off of any motivation to focus on quality production. The market is monopolised, and beers are made with inferior malts, or substitutes, flushed with syrupy preservatives like glycerine. Add to that bad storage. No surprise that two bottles from the same batch may taste oddly unidentical


It is only in the recent times, that microbreweries have come in and have really started focusing on quality. However, in a market where 95% of consumption is still held by lagers. 65% of this is strong beers. Creating a space for craft beers wasn’t to be easy. The growing new interest in microbreweries signals that a revolution is brewing in the market, both, quantitatively and qualitativelyWhite Rhino and Bira91 have been bottling their IPAs, while Arbor and Goa Brewing Company have found similar success in Goa. 


White Rhino’s owner and brewer, Ishaan Puri, says it is still a style for those who really know their beers. He further adds, its only a small percentage of their sales. Mumbai based Navin Mittal of Gateway Brewing Company, and Ketan Gohel of Brewbot, however, sees a constant growth in the category. Wheat beers still own up a bigger portion of their revenues. But, their consumers are keenly interested in trying more flavoursome and hoppier beers. Gaurav Sikka, Managing Director of Bengaluru-based Arbor Brewing Company comments that IPAs are gaining ground. He’s seeing an increased range of IPAs across brewpubs in the city which is considered the India’s craft beer capital.


Drinking IPA, that’re bitter and robust than wheats and lagers, is considered to be a commendable noble pursuit amongst connoisseurs. But for a novice, the bitterness can be overwhelming. Most consumers aren’t keen on learning and experimenting. They look for a familiar taste in their beers, deriving a safe and consistent value for their money. Thomas Hartman, VP Brewing and Innovations at Bira91, indicates that hops in India are ‘super expensive’. They need to be imported from various countries, attracting high taxes & duties. IPAs demand higher levels of hops which increases the cost of production.

Further, they soak up liquids in the tank, leading to a greater loss in the final quantity. Flavours derived from hops’ essential oils can turn from delectable and robust to sour and pungent quite easily. Thus, even with a great result, there’s a race to get the beer to consumers’ palate while it’s at its peak, especially considering the Indian storage regimens .


What makes IPAs alluring in India is the endless possibilities of the styles. Navin mentions that what defines an IPA boils down to ‘each its own’, till the time there’s a good amount of hop aroma and at least a firm bitterness. Ishaan feels if brewers remain within the general style guidelines they can really do whatever they want and add their own twists

So, for a new consumer of IPAs, Ketan suggests approaching a mild IPA at first, that’s considerably lower in bitterness than say a Double or an Imperial IPAGaurav implores the consumers to keep an open mind, and understand an IPA before drinking it. Once a good perspective on hops is achieved, one is better prepared to embrace them. Ishaan brings in the need to understand one’s own threshold of bitterness before marching in to the IPA section. He adds that there are consumers who loved an IPA on their first sip, and then there are some who can’t bear the mild bitterness of even a lager. A hybrid style that combines the best of a fruity American IPA and a sweeter English IPA will make a good starting point for a new IPA drinker, and that’s precisely where his IPA sits, he claims.


Its growing popularity could be due to a larger alteration in our palates, and a constant evolution of our taste buds. We are drinking more black teas, black coffees, cocktails, and eating more dark chocolates, getting acquainted with bitterness and drawing more pleasure from them too. However, appreciating bitterness is an acquired taste, and it takes a while and multiple trials before you start befriending it. IPAs are there too. It took some time but now IPAs are now the biggest category of craft beers in America, and is regarded as the ‘King of Crafts’.


Having said all this, is there a space for IPAs in the Indian market? To say this is the least. The Indian beer industry is steadily growing at an average of 17 – 22 percent each year over the past decade or so. New international mass-produced beers are entering the market, microbreweries are mushrooming, and new brands are emerging and diversifying their offerings. India consumed around 200 million cases last year, yet with only five litres per capita consumption in India, as compared to 142 in the Czech Republic and 108 in Namibia, there’s a substantial room to grow.

According to Ketan, there’s a very bright future for IPA’s in India, albeit lager dominance. With more and more people travelling around the world, their palates are evolving, they’re more adventurous, and open to trying new things. Now, we at least see IPAs available in bottles off the shelf in India, which shows that there’s definitely increasing demandNavin sees more variants reaching the taps in the future. He adds that the breweries keep experimenting and a devoted IPA lover loves to explore. Ishaan, while promoting experimentation and trials, also lays emphasis on educating the palates of the consumers. It will take a while, but we do need breweries to help kick start the movement, he adds. Thomas is optimistic and confident that IPA is here to stay, and it will continue to evolve more than any other style.


Pliny The Elder, once said, ‘Humans have spent more time on trying to figure out how to preserve a fermented beverage than anything else’. For the first man-made beverage that has survived the test of time, beers are a witness of our developing civilisation. For a civilised beverage that’s way more than just a social unifier, and a liquid for after-hours guzzling, beers are a serious drink with a longer history than wines, beers, and spirits. Spare a thought to it when you’re sipping your next beer, for it deserves it. Cheers!!


First published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine in July, 2019

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