Four IPA myths that need to be stamped out for #IPAday

There’s an amazing amount of inaccurate, made-up rubbish that has been written about the history and origins of IPA, or India Pale Ale. So read on, and turn yourself into  an IPA mythbuster for #IPA day:

Myth 1: “IPA was invented by a brewer called George Hodgson from Bow, in East London.”

Fact: Hodgson was the best-known of the early exporters of pale ale to India. But there is no evidence at all that he “invented” a new beer style. Pale ale was already being brewed in England before Hodgson. And the beer Hodgson brewed wasn’t called “India Pale Ale” until more than 40 years after he is first recorded as exporting beer to the Far East. Indeed, there is no evidence that IPA was “invented” at all. It looks more likely the style developed slowly from existing brews as “Pale Ale prepared for the India market”, and was eventually, around 1835, given a new and separate name, East India Pale Ale.

Myth 2:IPAs started life as a British export to their troops stationed out in India back in the 1800s.”

Fact: Pale ale was around from at least the 17th century and pale ales were being exported to India from at least the 1780s, if not before. And they weren’t drunk by the troops, either those of the East India Company’s forces or the later British Army forces in India, who much preferred porter, and continued drinking porter in India right through to the end of the 19th century. The pale ales exported by Hodgson, Bass, Allsopp and others were drunk by the middle and upper classes among the Europeans in India, the military officers and the “civil servants”, the civilians who worked for the East India Company, trading, administrating and collecting taxes.

Myth 3: “British brewers discovered that if they put lots of hops and alcohol in the beers they were sending out, the strong beer wouldn’t go sour on the four-month voyage around Africa.”

Fact: Beer did not need to be strong to survive the journey to India, and IPAs were not particularly strong for the time: they were only about 6 per cent to 6.5 per cent abv. Certainly by the 1760s brewers were being told that it was “absolutely necessary” to add extra hops to beer if it was being sent to somewhere warm. But this was not limited to India. And there is absolutely no evidence that George Hodgson of Bow introduced the idea of hopping export beers more strongly than beers for home consumption.

Myth 4: “A few India-bound beer ships were wrecked on the coast of Scotland, which gave locals the chance to sample the cargo. The secret was out, and IPA has been a staple in the UK ever since.”

Fact: There is no record of any shipwreck being associated with the sale of IPA in the UK. Update October 2015: never say never. It turns out there WAS a shipwreck off the coast of Lancashire, in 1839, after which pale ale which had been on its way to India was sold off in Liverpool – you can read about it here.  But even so, “pale Ale brewed expressly for the India market” and “suitable for warm climates or home consumption” was on sale in London in 1822, no shipwreck needed. And IPA never took off in Britain until around 1841, after the railway had arrived in Burton upon Trent and made it much easier for the Burton brewers to send their bitter beers to markets around the UK.

For more about the history, and myths, of IPA, go here for a summary of IPA history, here for a (much) longer version and here to learn more about what George Hodgson really did.

84 thoughts on “Four IPA myths that need to be stamped out for #IPAday

    1. “Fact: Pale ale was around from at least the 17th century and pale ales were being exported to India from at least the 1780s, if not before”.

      Mr. Cornell’s article is not that precise and accurate, though I think it may be from a simple misconception. So, Martyn, if you’re listening, I believe you have your centuries confused, at least in the quote I’ve included in my comment; unless you are indeed referring to the period from 1601 to 1700!

      The 17th century refers to the period from Jan., 1601 to Dec. 1700, the 18th century refers to the period from Jan., 1701 to 1800 and so on and so forth.

      I would have made my comment individually instead of replying to someone else’s comment, but I don’t see where I can just leave a comment, without replying to someone else’s.

      Good day and a great article in any case!

      1. “unless you are indeed referring to the period from 1601 to 1700!” Yes, of course I am. No, I don’t have my centuries confused. Pale ales began to be increasingly brewed after the invention of coke, which made the production of pale malt much easier. That was in the 1640s, ie the 17th century.

  1. Protz in his article on IPA in the latest Beer magazine seems to be moving away from Myth 1 (citing you) but is still sticking to Myth 3.

  2. Will be talking about this tonight at IPA night Martyn, and will certainly not be re-spreading any dirty IPA rumours! What perturbed us most about Roger Protz’s recent piece in BEER magazine was his willingness to swipe at brewers trying Black IPA. Is mixing things up in brewing not allowed these days?!

    1. Fack me, what am I meant to be writing here, a doctorial thesis? And don’t put “scare quotes” around the word facts. I will very happily supply you with references to any of the facts here you have a problem with.

      1. References for all would be great. The whole point of your article is that X is wrong. If you did the research to disprove them all, why not add the references…

        1. I didn’t add the references because this was meant to be a quick post for IPAday, not a scholarly treatise. And indeed, much of it is less “here are the facts to prove this myth wrong” and more “there are no facts at all to prove this myth right”. But I did put two links at the bottom of this post to previous posts which DO have proper references, in particular here, which is 4,000 words on the early days of “pale ale as brewed for India”, and I wrote a lengthy post here about pale ale brewing before IPA. And you can also read my book, Amber Gold and Black: see the column on the right for details of where to obtain it.

      2. Shame on you Martyn. No journalist worth his salt would react so badly to being asked the sources of your decrees from on high regarding what is correct in beer lore. My first question, whilst reading your “Myrthbuster” pronouncements, was, what makes Martyn correct in this matter. It is still my question begging a humble answer. When one states, empirically, that there is no evidence, evidence to that claim requires the light of day. I will thank you in advance for a thoughtful and considerate answer.

        1. “When one states, empirically, that there is no evidence, evidence to that claim requires the light of day.”

          Your demand is illogical: a lack of evidence cannot be proved, only disproved. Trying to actually prove there is no evidence only gets us into a circular arguement in which we attempt to assert that the lack of evidence proves the lack of evidence, which it does not, of course. But you can’t have a “source” for a lack of evidence, other than that the evidence for the non-existence of any evidence is the lack of evidence. While that current lack of evidence does not prove evidence will never be found, it does justify the claim that right now “there is no evidence” – because there isn’t.

          1. So your claim is – “because you can prove it, it didn’t happen”, but the that is not correct. Only if you can proce that it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen, otherwise it is as plausible as your explanations which are more based on lack of proof rather than facts or proofs that original “myths” are not true.

          2. You do not appear to understand the nature of proof. I flew around my house last night on the back of a pink unicorn. You can’t prove that I didn’t, so it must be plausible. See?

  3. Relieved that Hops and Glory features none of these myths, but I have to take issue with #2: Yes, IPAs were overwhelmingly drunk by public servants and civilians, and it’s they who made it famous. But troops were also a vital market.

    Between fighting there was very little for troops to do, and if left to drink arak, the local gut-rot, they died from bad drink much quicker than battle. Up to the mid-nineteenth century most troops were local ‘sepoys’ rather than British regiments, but after the Indian mutiny of 1757 tens of thousands of troops were sent over to India, and the India Office made orders for huge amounts of beer to keep them in fighting order.

    The archives in Burton on Trent still have many tenders issued by the India Office, asking brewers to pitch for the business of delivering thousands of hogsheads of beer for the troops. These documents are incredibly detailed, even down the the width of the bunghole and the staves used for the barrels. And they show a split of beers ordered: both porter and IPA. These were ordered in quantities of 7-8000 hogsheads at a time. You’re absolutely right that porter was very popular – and it’s important that point gets made as there’s another myth that porter ‘couldn’t survive’ the journey, when in fact many different styles of beer and cider were successfully exported to India throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But on the India Office tenders I found, the amounts of porter and IPA ordered were roughly equal.

    So while everything you offer in taking down the ‘myth’ is bang on, with the exception of ‘[pale ales] weren’t drunk by the troops, either those of the East India Company’s forces or the later British Army forces in India’ the ‘myth’ itself is also true, albeit incomplete. British Army forces most certainly did drink pale ales – as well as porter.

    1. In the East India company tenders for beer I’ve seen it’s more like a 65-35 split in favour of Porter. I’ve also found contemporary articles discussing the drinking habits of the ordinary soldiers. They say that they drank rum, arak or Porter. No mention of Pale Ale at all.

    2. What Ron said: of course, pale ale was part of the stock of beers shipped to India for the forces, and that can’t be dismissed – sorry if I appeared to be doing that. But it’s clear that right the way up until the end of the 1950s, bitter beer was a middle-class/officer class favourite, and the working classes, which included Tommy Atkins, mostly drank, first porter, and then later mild.

  4. I especially love #4. It’s got intrigue, danger, excitement, and somehow a boat trip from England to India by way of Scotland.

    I’m surprised to see you taking part in the obnoxious IPA Day nonsense, though.

  5. Well, then, I guess I am fine dealing with these 9-10% US IPAs tonight, not dealing with insanely over strength beers – just a foolishly over strength ones. Sometimes when I see “imperial” pale ale, I think it must be Darth’s empire being referenced.

  6. Martyn, the shipwreck story is an enduring one, mentioned in different guises then and now, and I find it fascinating that no evidence has popped up to substantiate it. It makes me wonder if most of what we read about pale ale in contemporary (1800’s) writings was puffed up or actually invented by creative writers. For instance, the story of brewing the first IPA in a teapot – even for someone like me who tends to give credence at first blush to what he reads – always struck me as improbable. Why would a large and successful brewery need to do that, and how do you do that anyway? Did Jeb mash in that little pot and then boil in it with hops too? This seems unlikely to me. Whence this story then, why would someone say something like that which seems so bizarre? (Or could it really have been true?). I would think the truth lies more in the interstices, by deduction and putting together things from sources which are not always “official” like ads in newspapers, popular accounts and the like, getting the big picture in other words.

    Maybe these stories were “rhetorical devices”, as the academic writers like to say, worked up to explain to a literate but busy general audience things which in fact had a more complex and obscure origin.


    1. Actually teapot story is very credible. Lot’s of decent size breweries actually and simply don’t have small brewing kits (ours included until recently). So when you want to do small “taste brew”, you just take whatever is at hand. Mash with a linen bag (and a blanket around a pot, to keep the temperature), boil in a teapot, cool with the ice bath – that’s where the teapot is handy as it is easier to submerge. Ferment in a room. Simple, yet working.
      Amateurs get all this fancy stuff, profi brewers don’t need much more than the teapot.

  7. Martyn, sorry if I placed my comment in the wrong place in the blog, please feel free to right that. I was making a general comment and not intending to comment on one of the comments.


  8. I have to admit, I was one of those uninformed people who believed in myth 2. Oh well, guess you learn as you go. Also, as a very sad note. Did anyone but me miss IPA day? I completely forgot, and it really sucks. I feel bad for anyone else who forgot, but I would really like to not be the only one!

  9. Would love to try some English IPA? However, I made do just fine with Boulevard Single Wide IPA. Martyn: Love your site, please keep up the good work

    1. British IPA’s are superior in my opinion, I live in America now and I find the Craft beers here too flowery. Green King IPA is a great British IPA, If you ever come across one.

  10. “Certainly by the 1760s brewers were being told that it was “absolutely necessary” to add extra hops to beer if it was being sent to somewhere warm.”

    Ok, but you don’t address why they were being told to add more hops to the beer if it was being sent somewhere warm. There is nothing here that disproves the idea that the extra hops were to act as a preservative, whether for the voyage or the destination climate.

    1. Oh, indeed, the hops were for preservation, but the myth claims this only applied to IPA, and was an idea invented for IPA, whereas this was a general recommendation, not limited to IPA and not invented by the Hodgsons.

      1. Ok then, so you’re only rebutting one very narrow version of how IPAs came about. Personally I never heard anything about Hodgson inventing them or the extra hops being limited to IPAs.

        1. “Very narrow version”? Trust me, until five or six years ago the “George Hodgson invented IPA to overcome beer spoiling” story was absolutely the mainstream version. Pick up any book published before 2003, certainly, and that’s what it will tell you. It’s only since I’ve been banging on about the evidence pointing to a distinctly different story that the “George Hodgson” version has been sunk.

          1. I take a bit of issue with your reply to myth #3 in the same vein as B-dub. Your wording definitely makes it seem to the reader as though all aspects of the myth as stated are false. Your rebuttal first deals with the alcohol aspect, but then makes it seem like the entire statement is false, by emphasizing the non-unique nature of IPA in the international beer shipping trade, whereas the myth as stated by your imagined speaker is actually not false in its entirety. If the myth were stated instead as “British brewers discovered that if they put lots of hops in the beers they were sending out, the hoppy beer wouldn’t go sour on the four-month voyage around Africa,” then you would have an entirely valid statement. Perhaps incomplete, as it should read “the hoppy beer wouldn’t go sour on the voyage to warm-climate British territories,” but nonetheless, not inaccurate at all. So in fact, it is less the myth itself, and more the way that you have phrased it for the purpose of your debunking, that is worthy of debunking.

          2. If the myth were stated instead as “British brewers discovered that if they put lots of hops in the beers they were sending out, the hoppy beer wouldn’t go sour on the four-month voyage around Africa,” then you would have an entirely valid statement.

            No – that would be implying that they only discovered lots of hops were needed when they sent beer out to India. The discovery that extra hops were needed was made when sending beer to hot climes generally.

  11. Martyn – It wouldn’t let me reply to your most recent response so I have left it here.

    I think you misread the syntax of my statement. My emendation is actually true, however, as I said in the next statement, not entirely complete. The sentence which I created, “British brewers discovered that if they put lots of hops in the beers they were sending out, the hoppy beer wouldn’t go sour on the four-month voyage around Africa,” is true. Nowhere does it say exclusively around Africa, or around Africa before anywhere else. They found that if they put hoppy beers in boats destined for warmer climes, they would survive, as you state. India just happened to be the one that gained the moniker (you certainly know more than I on this topic so I will not try to go into any detail on the history of that aspect), and thus the destination used in the version of my myth which I stated would actually be true. Incomplete, as I mentioned before, but still true. Really it is just semantics, but I was simply trying to make the point that the myth which you posed is not as far from reality as your post made it seem.

    1. None of them actually debunk anything
      #1 Of course pale ale existed before. Just the massively hopped and higher alcohol and dry version was invention for export to warm climates, where India was one of the most famous one. Other beers were exported but their shelf life was simply shorter, so there was clearly a need for something longer lasting.
      #2 – I always understood troops in this context as more general term. The whole British India administration were technically military occupants. Be it office workers, city leaders etc. So IPA in fact was invented for the occupants (or let’s use nicer term troops here)
      #3 – Beer would survive, but shelf life will be shorter (even nowadays) and there is high chance lot of the casks will actually go sour – especially in the old times when they used wooden casks, which are hard to sterilise. And at that time they finally had enough understanding of the process and basic biochemistry involved to know that drier, higher in alcohol it would be, it would last longer and knew the preservative value of hops. You wouldn’t do it for a local market because it seemed a) unnecessary and b) very expensive, but it was well worth it if you preserve much more of your export stock. So I am sorry but this eas clearly invention for export to hot climates (and long journeys) where again, India at that time was a prominent destination. And we talk about IPA style (let’s forgot the name for a bit), which was not exclusive to India. But even the name date way back before 1835.
      #4 Author already corrected that annoying mistake that there was no shipwreck. While it is true that train lines were behind the growth of popularity around UK, there was a shipwreck and there is a good chance that it significantly helped with popularity of this style in that area. So even this “myth” has some truth in it.

      Yes over the time the story simplified and steered a bit, but the original article is just aggressively tearing it apart without even considering that basically the “myths” are fact based and it’s not all made-up rubbish. In fact it has lot of substantion, which author in his blind hate can’t see.

      1. No, the myths are not fact-based, they were guesses by people who had not done enough research. And you don’t see to have done enough research either.

        1) The pale ales exported to India were NOT higher in alcohol than those sold at home. And all beers and ales exported abroad were more highly hopped to help them survive, including porters. East India Porter is a named style from at least the 1790s.
        2) Troops means troops. There was a specific and deliberate difference made between the East India Company’s “civil servants” and its “military servants”. To call the civil servants “troops” is wrong. The ordinary soldiers were recruited from the working class, and they drank porter. The officers and civil servants were the drinkers of pale ale. This is demonstrable.
        3) Again, the beers exported to warmer climates were NOT higher in alcohol than those sold at home, just more heavily hopped. And the name India Pale Ale is unknown before 1829.
        4) There is no actual evidence that the 1839 shipwreck boosted sales of IPA in the North West, and a more plausible explanation was the arrival of rail links from Burton to Manchester and Liverpool in the late 1840s.
        5) “Blind hate”? WTF are you on about? I’m a historian. I deal in evidence and facts. The myths don’t have any evidence to back them up. If you do have actual evidence to substantiate them, do present it.

  12. […] everywhere like so many flavored Tootsie Rolls. In fact, consumption of the historic style (complete with a hokey and apocryphal origin story) has increased so much that doctors are concerned the bitter flower has an addictive substance […]

  13. Ben you need a bit of context: when I first started questioning the IPA myths, I received considerable resistance from people who disliked the old verities being questioned, and I had a large number of people attack me and try to tell me that I was “just trying to prove a negative”. So after all the attacks, I get – regrettably, probably – annoyed when people start demanding evidence for the traditional story not being true. But the facts are that the traditional, and much-loved, story of the “invention” of IPA has NO evidence for it: however there’s mostly only inferential evidence for any other sort of narrative. So all one can do is say: “these are the known facts: this is the inference we are entitled to draw from those known facts.” The references to where to find those known facts are given in a couple of links further up.

  14. I love the way myths develop and change with time. To your myth #4, I’ve actually heard the same but the ship was wrecked off Liverpool, not Scotland, and it was the Irish Navvies who first spread word of the new beer as they built the railways. All true Gov. Honest….

  15. Al Murray will clearly tell you the British invented all ales…
    IPA – import pale ale ( imported from England to the countries containing Brits who needed)
    EPA – export pale ale ( meeting the eaely export requirements of alcoholic beverages shipping)

  16. Another myth, or possibly assertion, that I recall seeing in one or other published piece, was that as beer could not be brewed in India because it was so hot, it had to be imported from Europe. That seemed even on face value to be highly risible ……. but I hadn’t found much about alcohol and brewing before the Europeans arrived …….

    But this evening , I came across this that seems well referenced: Any thoughts, comments, other references or sources that may be around would be very welcome.

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