India Pale Ale, a name to be reckoned with
Writer and beer industry worker Anja Madhvani looks at how IPA was named after its sea-voyaged destination of India and its place in the contemporary beer landscape, one that still incorporates global trade routes, and asks how we can address our past.
It is commonplace for foods, beverages, and other regional produce to take on a name that denotes their origins. This is evidenced frequently in wines, and is commonplace in cheeses, baked goods, and meats. We are protective with our labels, and take great pride in the heritage and exclusivity of national and regional produce. It could be considered somewhat unique then, that India Pale Ale takes its name from its destination, rather than its place of production.
When did we start brewing IPA?
The history of IPA is a little tricky to trace. We know that IPA started life as a Pale Ale in Britain. The common story is that IPA was ‘invented’ in the 1700s, and was strong and heavily hopped, specifically to survive a six month voyage to India. This is a rather loose interpretation of a somewhat patchily documented history.
In the 1600s, brewing was a seasonal activity, with the majority of production taking place in the cooler months. It was common for increased hopping rates to be used to preserve the beer for consumption throughout the warmer months. IPA is usually credited as being the catalyst for the discovery of the preservative quality of hops, but evidence shows that this method was already standard practice for beers that were destined for consumption on our own shores.
IPA was not the only beer style to be exported, several other styles made voyages to various colonies of Britain, including table beers, brown ales, porters, and ciders. So these methods of production and preservation were not at all unique to India Pale Ale. Indeed, the early iteration of the style was being exported as a fairly standard Pale Ale from Hodgson’s Bow Brewery some 50 years before it took on the prefix ‘India’.
A relationship began with the East India Trade company, which existed to import goods from India to England. Officers aboard the East Indiamen (the fleet of ships belonging to the East India Company) would fill their empty ships with goods from England to sell at inflated prices to colonists in India, with the boon of avoiding freight costs. Hodgson’s pale ale likely grew in popularity in India over his Porters and October Beers due to it’s refreshing qualities in hot climes. It wasn’t until the 1820s that Hodgson described his pale ale as ‘beer as prepared for India’, and it seems the official title for the style didn’t come about until Burton breweries also began exporting similar beers to India. It wasn’t until the middle of the century that ‘India Pale Ale’ became the norm for printed adverts and beer labels. At this time, the style also grew in popularity in England, further driving the demand for increased volume.
The modern IPA takes many forms and is in a constant state of evolution, with focus shifting more toward New World hops from the likes of America and New Zealand. We’ve also seen the term India Pale Ale become an umbrella for many sub-genres of the style. As evidenced by the lack of definitive accounts, the history of IPA has become a little lost along the way, resulting in some disconnect between the modern consumer, and the colonial ties that birthed some of our favourite beers. Pre-pandemic I had hosted weekly brewery tours and tastings for over two years at North Brewing Co. I always include Transmission in the tasting, which is their flagship IPA. I use this as an opportunity to highlight the relationship between colonialism and beer. Usually I am met by a number of blank faces, and at least one customer most weeks will bashfully admit that they had just assumed the style must have originated in India.
There is sometimes a view, even within the beer industry, that this history is dull and tired or not worth talking about. This disconnect between people and historical accuracy has resulted in some distasteful choices from breweries, leading to poorly judged labels and marketing faux pas that have diminished the impacts of colonialism on India. A recent campaign from FourPure, a London-based brewery, was announced in May 2021 as part of a rebrand. This saw them giving their beers new names that focused on style and flavour characteristics making it easier to approach for the uninitiated beer drinker, a move that Lily Waite, drinks writer and founder of Queer Brewing, said “make[s] the brand massively more accessible […] 'Citrus Session IPA' tells a new-to-the-brand consumer more than 'Juicebox' does”.
However, some of their supporting marketing materials left a very sour taste (which Waite condemned as a poor and offensive choice). One poster read ‘Brewed In Bermondsey, South London. Nowhere Near India’.
This image is problematic on two levels. Firstly, shortly after it’s launch Covid-19 reached a crisis point in India, and the meaning of the image felt even more sinister, as though it sought to distance itself from a nation ravaged by a pandemic. Granted, the ad was already in circulation before Covid-19 reached this tipping point in India but it remained in place during this time. This language, in the spatial context of the UK where the general public do not know the story of IPA, is othering - why is distancing the brand from India necessary? What are they trying to say with this statement?
Even outside of this context the image is out of touch with current conversations about Britain's Empirical history, which seek to address and dismantle the hangovers of colonial structures. To gloss over the story of IPA - to not explain why the ‘I’ is there in the first place - is to put in place a barrier to larger conversations about Britain's colonial history. Beer is such an excellent platform for communicating with a broad range of folk, and this campaign disregards the nuance of our history as a nation.
Beer has always been about stories, the ones we share over a glass, and the ones that lead to the creation of the liquid in that glass. We have seen beer being used to tell complex and interesting narratives whether they be about people and craftsmanship, political viewpoints, charities that breweries support, the representation of marginalised folk, or the raw ingredients that flavour our brews. So why are we not successfully using our beers to talk about history, when it provides such a fascinating and enticing route into that learning? Beer provides a powerful way to contextualise parts of British history that haven’t been taught in depth in our schooling system.
Why does it matter?
In 2020 we saw a huge shift in awareness of our racialised society, particularly within the Global North, after the tragic murder of George Floyd. One outcome of this has been an increase in conversations around privilege and systemic issues of racism. Within the UK that has also included shining a light on the lack of education on British colonial history. The statue of Edward Colston, who was a member of the Royal African Company and made a great deal of his fortune by enslaving people, was toppled by protestors in Bristol. This action was met with disapproval from members of government and many of the general public. Those against it viewed the action as lawless and violent, and felt that removing statues cannot change history, and is therefore a needless act. The ‘Colston Four’ who stand accused of criminal damage for taking down the statue will face trial later this year. They have pleaded not guilty.
Taking down statues isn’t about changing our past, it’s about setting a course for a brighter future. In memorialising and giving space to figures that represent oppression and harm, we give credibility to their deeds and actions. We exonerate them of their wrongdoings, writing them off as a product of a time and a place. Retaining these statues in public spaces doesn’t push us to have the conversations we need to have, people walk by them every day and don’t stop to think about what they represent. Colonial England was active in its pursuit for riches across the globe through colonisation, but is now very passive in dealing with the repercussions, we are a fractured society in desperate need of empathy, understanding, and unity. The toppling of Colston made us sit up and pay attention, it had to be loud to be heard, and it opened up some much needed dialogue.
We’ve also seen people petition for the school curriculum to be more transparent with its teaching in relation to the impact of the British Empire on the wider world. There are only a few voices starting to discuss what all this means in the context of beer. Matt Curtis sparked a discussion on Twitter a few months ago, predicting that it would only be a matter of time before breweries decided to move away from these terms, and indeed it was something we had already been deliberating at Cloudwater Brew Co, where I work part time on our soda project. We didn’t reach any conclusions, but I’m glad that the discussion at least started.
The label IPA is rooted in power, the wealth and privilege of travel, the ownership of lands and people beyond British soil. It may not be a history that we take pride in now, but it is surely one to explore, not least because there are so many folk in our beer spaces who feel an affinity with this story. As a mixed race British/Indian woman, I would not exist were it not for the movement of folk across the globe, and the relationship between Britain and India fascinates me.
If we step outside of India, it could be said that the label of IPA obscures the journeys of various beer styles to other colonies, most notably the British territories in the West Indies, Australia, and West Africa. These are not just issues of the past, some of the most fertile soils on the globe have been inhabited by indigenous peoples, and now play host to some of the most highly sought after hop varieties. How many of these hop farms are owned by, or operated in harmony with, those who truly have claim to the land? And how does our modern beer industry feed into a narrative of colonialism and environmentalism with our thirst for heavily hopped IPAs? The roots of Empire run so deeply through our industry, and I struggle to see if we are merely ignorant to them, if they have been wilfully buried, or perhaps if it is some combination of the two. I would certainly like to see us thoroughly excavate these ugly truths behind modern beer.
India Pale Ale is now so far removed from its origins that it could be time to look for a new label for our brews. But to my mind, separating these beers from their colonial titles should only be done if it comes with loud and impactful education, both within our businesses, and across our consumer base. Statues can be placed in national museums to remind us of past actions, but if we lose the story of IPA, we lose another context through which to understand a troubled relationship between Britain and the wider world. If we wish to topple the statue of the IPA name we must first know exactly what it represents. This dismantling must be done with intent for better futures, and not for the masking of past wrongdoings.
Anja Kent Madhvani is a writer and drinks industry worker. She was born in Hannover, Germany, where her Kenyan-born Gujarati father was serving in the British tank regiment. Whilst writing this piece and thinking about the root of names, Anja shared her story: Anja is a Russian name, popular in Germany and Eastern Europe. Her middle name Kent is from her English mother, everyone in the family took on Kent as a middle name generations ago, to denote family origins.
Anja studied classical piano performance at The University Of Huddersfield, and has gone on to perform as a violinist and singer with a number of post-rock bands, most notably Her Name Is Calla. She has spent 13 years in the beer industry, managing venues, hosting brewery tours and tastings, and working in sales and communications. She also works with Club Soda, a mindful drinking movement who aim to create a world where nobody feels out of place if they aren’t drinking. She was an assistant author of the Club Soda book ‘How To Be A Mindful Drinker: Cut Down, Stop For A Bit, Or Quit’. You can read her work on Leeds Confidentials, Club Soda, and Pennycress Zine. Anja is training for London Marathon and raising funds for TB Alert, a charity very close to her heart. Hear about her misadventures completing an ultra marathon in the Sahara Desert with undiagnosed Pulmonary Tuberculosis on Bad Boy Running Podcast.