Why IPA beers have 'India' in their names — and how they fit into a key part of human history
Most beer fans — hop-heads especially — know the basic lore behind the term IPA.
The India Pale Ale was created so that the British could keep drinking beer while colonizing the world.
When India was a British colony, it was tough to brew beer there because of the hot weather. There wasn't yet widespread access to refrigeration, and intense heat makes fermentation go wild, speeding it up and changing flavors in unpredictable and often unpleasant ways. That made brews turn out inconsistent and largely unsuccessful.
Shipping "regular" English brews (like porters and dark ales) to the Indian subcontinent was also problematic, since the beer would go bad, become stale or get infected before it arrived.
But two ingredients in beer naturally have preservative effects: hops, the drink's key bittering agent, and alcohol, the substance that may have driven humanity to create civilization in the first place.
Allegedly, a brewery owner named George Hodgson decided to harness the power of these ingredients to create a beer that could survive the intense journey. Hodgson tried sending a particularly alcoholic beer (similar to a barleywine) loaded with fresh hops to create a refreshing aroma and taste. It worked.
And in addition to preserving the liquid, these ingredients also created a new flavor. (And eventually yielded a beer that was paler in color than many of the dark ones the Brits had been drinking.)
Patrick McGovern is the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of the recent book "Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created." He told Business Insider that as the hops and extra alcohol stewed in the hold of a ship, "you have some sort of maturation that's going on."
"It’s getting a certain amount of oxygen and certain reactions are occurring and you make certain new flavors and aromas in the process of shipping it over an extended distance," he said. "That’s the origin of the very, very hoppy type beers — IPAs."
Solving a problem ending up creating a delightful new style of beer that was stronger in both flavor and alcohol.
McGovern — who has been dubbed by some the "Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages" — said these efforts should be seen as part of a long history of human ingenuity devoted to one important goal: keeping our booze in drinkable shape.
"In fact, there's one ancient Roman writer, Pliny the Elder [the namesake of one of the most sought-after Imperial IPAs in the world], that says 'Humans have spent more time on trying to figure out how to preserve a fermented beverage than anything else,'" McGovern said. "It's been a preoccupation of our species right from the beginning."