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The Imperial Heritage of Beer Styles—Hints of a Troublesome Past

By Kerri Shadid

The names of beer styles are set in stone. Brewers must follow certain guidelines so that drinkers know essentially what they will get from a “Belgian-Style Saison” (light, bubbly, slightly fruity) or a “Milk Stout” (dark, rich, malty, sweet). The system does not allow for calling one’s “India Pale Ale” an “Indigenous Pale Ale,” which could lead to confusion, especially for those just starting to enjoy craft beer. (Of course, while we can’t change the name of beer styles, we can, and do, enjoy creating names for our beers that raise awareness of underrecognized communities; for example, our Sidamo Stout​, named for the Ethiopian women farmers who produce the Sidamo coffee beans.)

But, because our mission at Equity Brewing Co. is to promote inclusivity and equity in the beer industry, we do think it’s important to recognize that the origins of some common beer styles suggest an imperial heritage that involved the exploitation of many people. After all, recognizing a troublesome past is the first step to positive social change for the future.

The name IPA (India Pale Ale) may lead you to assume that this style was created in India, but it was actually made in London to help the British rule India. Once a sea route opened to the east, European nations scrambled to include new territories as part of their empires. The British East India Company began trading in India in 1600, and Britain started seizing land in India in 1757. That’s around the time—1780s—that IPA was invented to bring beer to those colonizing the Indian subcontinent.

The London brewer Hodgson started exporting a strong, heavily hopped beer meant to be aged like wine that could survive the six-month-long boat ride to India. India was too hot for brewing beer so having a beer that could be shipped was essential for the British sent to establish and maintain control over India. In a way, IPA helped fuel Britain’s rule over the Indian subcontinent. (Would they have called it quits and gone home if they couldn’t find a way to drink beer in India? Beer has played a powerful role in human history, so it’s hard to know!) The British raj took over direct rule of the Indian subcontinent from the British East India Company in 1858 and executed control over India until its independence in 1947. Under the British Empire, Indians had no self-determination, were impoverished by excessive taxation and suffered a number of additional challenges as a result of Britain’s colonial legacy.

Similarly, the “Imperial” designation before stout, porter or other types of beer harkens to the popularity of strong beer in Imperial Russia. In 1698, Russia’s Peter the Great visited England and fell in love with strong beers, but when he requested that some be sent to Russia, they spoiled on the 1,500-mile-long journey (so the story goes). The British increased the amount of alcohol and hops for the second attempt, creating a strong porter that became incredibly popular in Russia and came to be called “Russian Imperial Stout.” The term “Imperial” designated that it was destined for the imperial court in Russia, but eventually came to signify any double or stronger version of a beer. Of course, the Russian Empire was not known for equity—far from it. Serfs in Imperial Russia had no freedom and lived generally unpleasant lives.

The fact is, the history of beer, like much of human history, is filled with stories of the powerful exploiting the marginalized. We can start to understand this history by recognizing that IPAs and Imperial Stouts speak to a time when the ruling elite drank beer, conquered lands that were not theirs and forced the poor into a life of servitude.

At Equity Brewing Co., we hope that raising awareness of beer’s ties to imperialism will help us be more mindful of how beer is brewed and enjoyed today. We are dedicated to creating beer that empowers rather than exploits. So, cheers to making beer that is enjoyed by all, not just the ruling elite.


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