Pale ale has an interesting history that involves invention, foreign trade, geological proximity, empire, and the roots of the industrial revolution in England.
Much has been written about the genesis of pale ales, but it is generally agreed that the development of coke as a fuel for the roasting of malt, first recorded in 1642, was the starting point. Coke is a fossil fuel derived from coal, much the way charcoal is derived from wood. It generates a great deal of heat without the attendant soot and smoke.
Coke became the preferred fuel of the iron and steel industry in England early on, and was adopted by many other industries. Before the use of coke, wood and peat fires were used to roast malt, which infused it with the smoky character of the heat source and gave it a brown color. Coke-fired maltings produced a lighter variety of malt without the smoke. The first known mention of the term “pale ale” was around 1703, and by the 1780s was in general use. By the early 1800s, pale ales were commonly referred to as “bitters.”
Burton-on-Trent is where geological proximity enters into the picture. Ales produced in this area of England were considered to be of a high quality – Bass Ale in particular. The local water, as it turned out, contained a high level of sulfates. This was beneficial to brewing on several levels. The ales produced with Burton water had great clarity and could also be bittered to a much higher degree than ales brewed with the carbonate water used by the brewers in London. Later on, the water chemistry was calculated, and oddly enough, brewers throughout England began to treat their water to replicate the waters of Burton-on-Trent through a process known as “Burtonisation.”
One thing about pale ales is the fact that they began to diverge stylistically, almost from the outset, with noticeable differences between the Burton and London breweries. The British Empire was in full sway with merchants and traders traveling around the world. India was the “Jewel in the Crown” of the empire with a large British military and civilian population with a thirst for beer. The tropical climate there made brewing with the technology of the age impossible. Early attempts to transport porters and stouts fared poorly because of the long sea voyage and temperature fluctuations. Attempts at transporting bottled products met with mixed results as well.
Enter one George Hogeson of the Bow Brewery in London who, in 1790, developed a recipe for pale ale that included a huge increase in hops and a much higher alcohol content. Both hops and alcohol were known to have preservative qualities. The export casks were primed with sugar and dry-hopped prior to shipping. The resulting beer arrived in India unspoiled, but much stronger and hoppier than the domestic version.
This “India Pale Ale” was very popular and profitable. Hogeson soon had a monopoly on the India ale trade, but his unethical trade practices – primarily price fixing and credit manipulation to stifle competition – provided Bass and other Burton breweries with an opportunity to get into the IPA business within a few years. They copied and improved Hogeson’s recipes, provided a superior product from their Burton breweries, became major exporters, and broke Hogeson’s monopoly. Brewing lore, in this case well documented, tells about an outbound ship with a cargo of IPA that wrecked in the Irish Sea in 1827. The cargo was salvaged and auctioned in Liverpool, giving the home market its first taste of “India Pale Ale.” It was an immediate hit and before long, IPA was being produced for the local markets and even attained some popularity in continental Europe.
Pale ales, as such, continue to be produced in their somewhat original domestic form in England to the present day, with Bass being the best known example. IPA did not fare so well. Modern brewing technology, changing public tastes, a couple of major wars, and the decline of the Empire all had a hand in its decline. Pale ales had crossed the Atlantic to America early, but lost popularity and were only produced as secondary products by the prolific German brewers. By 1900, IPA was produced by only a small handful of primarily Northeastern breweries. But they were IPAs in name only, bearing little resemblance to the original products. Likewise, the pale ales of the time more closely resembled strong lagers than anything else. After Prohibition and on into the 1960s and 1970s, most products labeled as ales, pale or otherwise, were considered to be in the malt liquor category.
Luckily, the pioneering American craft brewing industry came to the rescue. On the 18th of April 1975, Anchor Brewing produced its first batch of Liberty Ale to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride. Based on classic English recipes, the original brew of Liberty Ale was true to its origins, with the exception of the American Cascade hops that were used both in the boil and for dry-hopping. Many consider Liberty Ale, the first modern American IPA brewed after Prohibition, to be the catalyst that started what was to become a true brewing renaissance.
Within a few years, there were many other examples of what was then called “American pale ale.” The style lines have become blurred over time with the term IPA in wide use along with American pale ale (APA), British style pale ale, strong pale ale, etc. Although there are uncounted variations today, they are all one sort of pale ale or another. They range from golden to dark in color, with IBUs and ABVs all over the map (or the brewhouse, or whatever). The use of the term “double IPA” has come to mean extra hoppy and “imperial IPA” now means higher ABV. We even have “double imperial” and “black” IPAs being marketed today.
The IPA variant of the pale ale style continues to evolve on an almost daily basis. Many craft breweries report that their version is the most popular beer they sell. With so many IPAs now in the market, the brewers are coming up with all sorts of ways to get their product to stand above the fray. Brutally high hop rates are becoming the norm. High ABVs with some approaching or even exceeding the 10% range are not uncommon.
Anchor Liberty Ale has held true to its heritage. Brewed with an all-malt recipe that is hopped exclusively with whole-flower Cascade hops from the Pacific Northwest, Liberty Ale is the first modern American ale to employ dry-hopping. In its early days, Liberty Ale was considered to be a radically bitter product. Unchanged since then, it now is held to be somewhat mid-range in that regard. Our pioneering use of dry hops is now almost universally emulated by the craft beer industry and continues to be an important element of this classic example of pale ale.
UPDATE: Is Liberty Ale an APA or an IPA? Read Bob Brewer’s answer to this oft-asked question.