English Style IPA – Let’s Explore This Delicious Brew

NOTE: In the most recent 2021 BJCP Style Guidelines, an English IPA falls under the category 12 Pale Commonwealth Beer which includes pale, moderately strong, hop-forward, bitter ales from countries within the former British Empire. English Pale Ale falls under the sub-category 12 C.

The information below is still valid for the style, but when studying for the current BJCP exam, use this article as a reference in conjunction with the current description.

The famous beer style of IPA is the current darling of beer lovers here in the USA. Go into any craft beer bar and you will probably find more IPAs than any other style of ale both on the taps and in the beer coolers too.

There are West Coast IPAs, East Coast New England IPAs, Hazy IPAs, Fruity IPAs, and even Black IPAs now available.

But what makes an English IPA so different from its American counterparts?

Like many American beers, the American IPA is derived from the traditional styles of beer from the UK, but English Style India Pale Ale beers have a completely different flavor profile, which, to be honest, can take some getting used to after savoring the American genre-bending beers.

The Brits have always been known for their preference for more hardy beers, and traditional ales prior to the late 16th Century were always very malty beers.

The introduction of hops to the UK in the 1500s meant English brewers began producing strong, more hopped-up, pale beers which were intended for longer storage.

Unlike the European brewers of Germany and Bavaria who added hops such as their noble hops for flavor and aroma, with many English beers they seemed to be an afterthought just added for the bitterness and preservative qualities they impart to a beer.

Beer geeks will often repeat the mythical origins of the IPA with many different versions which drives beer historians crazy.

The often-told fanciful stories about it being the first beer that was brewed for export to India may be slightly true, but the English had been exporting beers and porters to the Empire long before the 18th century and the supposed invention of an IPA.

What Is the True History of the English IPA?

glass of beer on the table
Photo by Dan Barrett on Unsplash

Recently, a well-meaning barman in my local craft beer hangout decided to regale me with a quick history lesson in honor of National IPA day.

Apparently, India Pale Ales were first brewed in India for export back to England – I didn’t have the heart to tell him he had got his story wrong and just continued sipping my favorite beer while smiling politely.

A more likely and definitely more common story in the complicated history of this British beer style refers to George Hodgson of the Bow Brewery in London who in the late 1700s supposedly brewed the first ale more suited for the five-month sea voyage to India by adding more hops and increasing the strength of the beers.

Again, not strictly true. IPAs were not the first beers brewed to be sent to India, other kinds of beer such as porters and even low-alcohol beers had been shipped to the subcontinent and other parts of the world for over 100 years before the Bow Brewery had even opened.

If fresh beers such as those arrived safely, you can almost guarantee that hoppy beers such as Pale Ales would too.

Heat and motion during the voyage would often rouse the wild yeast back into suspension which would cause a secondary fermentation. The resulting beer was dry, well-attenuated beer which emphasized the hop character more.

George Hodgson didn’t invent this distinct beer style, but his brewery certainly did dominate the market in the early 19th century.

The term India Pale Ale wasn’t actually applied until later that century when ex-pats returning from India started demanding strong, highly-hopped beers, similar to those they had enjoyed in India, back in their homeland of England.

The British brewers began recreating the recipes of those beers they had enjoyed in India which mimicked the character of the beers without a need for the extended aging periods of a five-month voyage.

Adverts for the beers referred to them as “pale ale as prepared for India” and hence the India Pale Ale was born.

A trade dispute with the East India Company in 1823 led to Sam Allsop recreating and reformulating the pale ale which was shipped to India using the sulfate-rich waters of Burton in England.

Although the strength and popularity of IPA waned over time, the stronger Burton-type IPA remained, but the name was also applied to hoppy, lower-gravity beers too, which often appeared in bottles.

The English IPA style underwent a revival in the 1980s with modern versions typically inspired by the classic versions of the 19th century.

Of the IPAs which are still produced in England, White Shield has the longest lineage and is closest to the classic Burton IPAs as it was first brewed in 1829 in Burton.

English Style IPAs Today

Most English IPA-style beers today are really nothing more than an English Pale Ale, coming in at less than 4% ABV. (Remember in Britain, 5% ABV is considered a strong beer!).

The acclaimed real Ale authority in the UK CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) claims that these “so-called” IPAs with strengths of around 3.5% are not true to the style.

Even the English beer historian Martyn Cornell has commented that weaker IPAs are not really distinguishable from ordinary bitter beer.

Some might argue that the latest attempts to brew original English IPAs are actually veiled attempts at brewing the popular American-style IPA but with a lower ABV, similar to what we call a Session IPA.

To me, if it has Cascade hops in its profile, it’s an American IPA!

So why did the IPA English beer styles become mere shadows of the originals? The reason lies in the English beer taxation system.

Before the 1880s, tax or toll on beer was paid based on the ingredients of beer used. Then came the “Free Mash Tun Act” which changed the way beer was taxed. Beer began to be taxed based on the gravity of the wort used, or the beer’s “alcohol potential”.

The bigger beers, such as an original English IPA, were taxed at a much higher rate than the weaker worts.

Thus, English brewers began making weaker beers and the consumer tastes followed along, much the same way that American tastes followed the weak lager trend after prohibition.

The Difference Between an American IPA vs English-Style IPA

clear wine glass with beer
Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

With a beer culture that favors hop-forward types of beer, the American craft brewers were quick to jump all over the IPA style when looking to the English ales for the development of beer styles.

The American Pale can be thought of as the beer-style predecessor with an American IPA amping up those hoppy aromas while upping the ABV too.

The hops are the biggest difference between an English-Style IPA and its American cousin. Craft beer lovers here in the US, and worldwide too, now know an American IPA for its hop intensity.

Bold American hops like Cascade, Citra, Chinook, Mosaic, and Centennial, to name but a few, give American IPAs hoppy aromas of pine, citrus, or flowers.

By comparison, English IPAs call for more of a balance between the hops and the malt so the complex malt profile is not overpowered by the hops.

English hops which are most commonly used in the English IPAs give a spicier, earthier, and more subtle aroma. The English hop character tends to be less overly fruity and bright.

The other defining aroma of an English IPA is a slight whiff of sulphur in the nose of the beer.

This dates back to the days when IPAs were produced in Burton where the river sits on top of gypsum beds. Many homebrew recipes include gypsum as an added ingredient which can add a nice finishing touch to the beer.

The firm malt base of most modern English IPAs will feature nutty and toffee-like malt flavors and a caramelly flavor rarely found in an American IPA.

A fruity yeast flavor can also be evident from the use of English yeasts, some of which are now used in the East Coast or New England IPAs for that fruity and extra lively aroma.

Overall, English Style IPAs can be aggressively hoppy beers but the hops are much less overtly citrusy and bright as an American IPA with the malt flavor playing a much bigger part in the beers too.

Let’s take a quick look at what the BJCP guidelines say an English Style IPA should be.

English IPA Description

  • Aroma: The English IPA should exhibit a moderate to moderately high hop aroma which will typically be floral, spicy-peppery, earthy, or a slight citrus-orange in nature. A slight dry-hopped aroma is acceptable but not required by this style. The malty aroma will normally be a medium bready or biscuit malt with a low to moderate caramel presence. A low to moderate fruitiness is acceptable and there may be an optional slight sultry note.
  • Appearance: Although most English IPAs are fairly pale, their color can range from golden to deep amber. Clear in appearance, although unfiltered or dry-hopped versions may have a slight haziness. The head will normally be moderate-sized with an off-white color.
  • Flavor: An English IPA’s hop flavor should be in the medium to high range, with a moderate to strong hop bitterness. The hop flavor should be similar to the aroma (floral, earthy, fruity, and/or slightly grassy). Typical English malt flavors should be medium-low to medium-high, but should be noticeable, pleasant, and support the hop character. The malt should show an English character and be somewhat bready, biscuit-like, toasty, toffee-like, and/or caramelly. Despite the substantial hop character typical of these beers, sufficient malt flavor, body, and complexity to support the hops will provide the best balance. Very low levels of diacetyl are acceptable, and fruitiness from the fermentation or hops adds to the overall complexity of these beers. The beer should finish medium to dry, and bitterness may linger into the aftertaste but should not be harsh. If high sulfate water is used, a distinctively minerally, dry finish, some sulfur flavor, and a lingering bitterness are usually present. Some clean alcohol flavors can be noted in stronger versions. Oak is inappropriate in this style.
  • Mouthfeel: The mouthfeel should be smooth, medium-light to medium-bodied without any hop-derived astringency. A moderate to medium carbonation will give an overall dry sensation despite the supportive and often sweet malt background. A smooth but low alcohol warming can often be detected in stronger versions.
  • Overall Impression: This is a hoppy, moderately strong English pale ale that features typical English malt, yeast character, and hop flavors and aroma. It will have less hop character and a more pronounced malt flavor than American versions but is still big as far as English beers go.
  • Ingredients: Pale ale malt (well-modified and suitable for single-temperature infusion mashing); English hops; English yeast that can give a fruity or sulfury/minerally profile. Refined sugar may be used in some versions. High sulfate and low carbonate water is essential to achieving a pleasant hop bitterness in authentic Burton versions, although not all examples will exhibit the strong sulfate character.

Vital Statistics

IBU40 - 60
SRM6 -14
OG1.050 - 1.070
FG1.010 - 1.015
ABV5% - 7.5%
  • Commercial Examples: Meantime India Pale Ale, Freeminer Trafalgar IPA, Fuller’s IPA, Ridgeway Bad Elf, Summit India Pale Ale, Samuel Smith’s India Ale, Hampshire Pride of Romsey IPA, Burton Bridge Empire IPA, Middle Ages ImPailed Ale, Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn East India Pale Ale

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