IPA: Incredibly Poor Article

The excuse given for Wikipedia is that its articles may not be the best, but they provide a good leaping-off point for finding out more. That’s not true of the Wikipedia entry on India Pale Ale, however, which is so completely, uselessly wrong as to be actively dangerous: the mistakes in it are going to be repeated by other writers too lazy to do their own research, and they are likely to take years to stamp out.

Just to list a few of the worst errors: there was NO real difficulty exporting beer to the East: contemporary evidence shows everything from small beer to porter surviving the journey. There were NO “tremendous efforts” by British brewers to solve this non-existent problem (the article fails to recognise that the Indian market was tiny, at 9,000 barrels a year in 1800). There is NO evidence George Hodgson, a small-time porter brewer, actually invented IPA, or deliberately designed a recipe for a beer to survive the journey to India. (The writer seems unaware that brewers had been making ales that would last at least a couple of years in cask for more than a century before Hodgson started brewing) There is NO evidence India was a “very tempting” market for British brewers before the 1820s: if it had been, a small brewer such as Hodgson would not have been able to build up a substantial slice of the trade.

The beer exported to Russia was NOT called “Imperial Pale Ale”, it was either Burton Ale if it was pale ale from Burton upon Trent, or Imperial Stout if it was a strong stout from London. It is NOT true that “The national IPA was less hopped compared to the export version, in order to speed up the fermentation” – by “national” IPA (is this an Indian English expression?) I assume the writer means IPA sold in Britain. If this was less-hopped, it was to speed up maturation, not fermentation.

Oh, and the East Indiamen ships did NOT travel “along the coast of Africa” on their way to India, they went via Madeira, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and St Helena to get round the Cape, and then up through the Mozambique Channel.

I’ve put another myth-buster up on the “Frequently Addled Quotations” covering IPA, and outlining what I believe is the correct version of history: that IPA developed out of the strong, well-hopped stock ales, designed to last a year or two in cask before being drunk, that British brewers were already making before entrepreneurial ship’s captains decided to make a few bob taking beer out to sell in India. The stock ale went through a speeded-up maturation on the journey, and arrived out East in prime condition.

Even in the 1890s J Harris Browne of the Hadley brewery near Barnet was calling its IPA “Stock Ale”, and in 1898 Waltham Brothers’ brewery in Stockwell, South London said of its India Pale Ale: “This Ale is heavily hopped with the very best Kent hops, and nearly resembles the fine Farmhouse Stock-Beer (their emphasis) of olden times.” Overseas imitators of IPAs also emphasised that this was a beer which needed to be matured: an advertisement from the end of the 19th century for CH Evans’s brewery in Hudson, New York for its IPA said the beer was “Allowed two years to ripen in the Wood before bottling”.

Still, at least Wikipedia spells Hodgson’s name correctly, unlike one American beer book I have which calls him “Hogsdon”. This same book is again written in ignorance of the existence of strong well-hopped English beers before IPA, and claims, with no evidence at all, that he dry-hopped his beers: he may well have done, but there ain’t no records to say so. Another American beer encyclopedia, talking about IPA, says that “porter did not ship well”, a nonsensical claim: when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, on the east coast of Australia, to set up a pioneering penal colony in 1788, the new arrivals drank toasts to the success of the settlement in glasses of porter brought 11,000 miles from England.

34 thoughts on “IPA: Incredibly Poor Article

  1. Martyn, errors in Wikipedia articles are easily fixed. Just click the “Edit” link and make the correction. Would be great if you could do this, because I, for one, would love to hear the correct history of IPA.

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  2. Lars, life is too short to correct everything that’s wrong with Wikipedia’s entries on beer styles, especially when someone else who “knows better” can come along and re-edit one’s work.

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  3. If only there were some way, some way!, for a knowledgeable person to quickly and easily correct erroneous information on Wikipedia. Until such time as that’s invented, I guess the only outlet for Truth will be cranky blog posts.

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  4. There’s a handful of editors that keep introducing blatantly wrong information into beer articles. I think my favorite was when the Lager article was turned into a redirect to “Pale lager” and the whole of Dunkel, Bock, etc. suppressed — because, after all, lager can only mean Stella Artois and the like.

    I watch a few articles and try to cut out what I can, but I can’t watch all of them and there’s a lot of forking going on.

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  5. I don’t buy the argument that ‘life is too short’ to correct the Wikipedia article; life was long enough for you to complain about it.

    If you know better than the previous writer, then please make the necessary corrections – I see you have added your criticisms to the talk page as well, which will at least help someone else to improve the article.

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  6. Keith: it’s not a question of “the necessary corrections”, it’s “rewriting the entire thing from beginning to end”. And not just the IPA article – they’re almost all nearly as bad. Take, at random, this from the entry on stout:

    “at one time, porter was considered an alternative name for stout”

    No it wasn’t, ever. That’s just an utter misunderstanding.

    I write articles about beer for a living (not much of a living, alas, and I have to do a lot of other, different things as well.) The “free” stuff I do on this blog is, often, tryouts for articles/books I’m researching, written in what spare time I have. I ranted about the Wikipedia piece because I happened to be writing up something on IPA this week and stumbled on the Wikipedia entry while looking for references to American “Imperial IPAs”. It annoyed me so much that I dashed off a complaint to the article’s talk page and repeated the complaint at more length here. I took space out of my spare time that I shouldn’t have – and, believe me, I don’t have any more time to provide for free to try to improve Wikipedia.

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  7. Hi,

    Just a point of clarification, where does the India come from in IPA? Does the “I” even stand for India?

    I am confused by your comments regarding its origin.

    Thanks.

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  8. See if you can spot which bits of the wikipedia beer articles I wrote.

    To really sort the beer style articles out would be a fulltime job. That’s why I gave up. And all the other experts who correct your work.

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  9. This is a pervasive rumour, then – the hops-as-preservatives-on-a-long-journey story appears on the label of Meantime IPA, one of the UK’s best.

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  10. Bob – It was called India Pale Ale, or East India Pale Ale, in Britain because it was meant to be the pale ale “as prepared for India”, to quote one advertisement from the 1840s. My personal belief is that it was not actually any different from strong stock bitter: .

    Dickie – I agree with you about the excellence of Meantime IPA, a very fine beer.

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  11. Martyn’s right about Wikipedia editing being a waste of time. Anyone who has any in depth – or even passing – knowledge of any subject will have looked at relevant pages, spotted blatant but persistent errors, and written off the whole wikipedia project as a result. As a result it’s only used with confidence by those who have no knowledge of anything, and it ensures they stay that way.

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  12. I fully agree with Martyn here; correcting Wikipedia articles on booze is a thankless, pointless job. I tried correcting the bourbon article — like Martyn, I make my living writing about drinks, and I know bourbon — and within two days, every correction had been taken back. Why waste my time any further? Why write Wiki for free when I can get paid to write it in a magazine? And before you tartly ask why I’m taking time to write this when I’m not going to get paid for it…why? Because I want to, and because no one will off-handedly muck with it after I have. My editors do that, but I cash the check and feel much better.

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  14. I would not recommend that anyone relies on information they have found just by visiting a Wikipedia article, because it might not be true. However, I would recommend that people take part in developing it, because it’s a rather satisfying and heartening collaborative project.

    One of the major sub-projects (which I doubt you’re aware of) is the publication of a “snapshot” of Wikipedia on DVD-ROM. A handful of carefully vetted Wikipedia administrators are cherry-picking and verifying the best (most comprehensive, notable and well-written) few thousand articles on Wikipedia for a general public release. This will be a wonderful, reliable and accountable resource, particularly for people in the developing world who cannot afford to pay for a copyrighted encyclopaedia. The project is currently on Version 0.5, an experimental release. You can download it at wikipediaondvd-dot-com, or pay a small fee to have a copy burned and posted to you. And you’re of course allowed (and encouraged) to copy and redistribute it. Or wait for Version 1.0 if you want, which will be much bigger and better.

    As for your complaints about the IPA article, you can edit it if you want. If you don’t want to, don’t. But please don’t ‘write off’ the entire project because you found a dodgy article. The quality of writing and the rate of accuracy on Wikipedia is, on the whole, astounding for a resource written entirely by volunteers and funded entirely by donations. No one would have thought it possible ten years ago. The astonishing thing about it is that, for the most part, *it works*. No, the website is not a reliable source of information, but the best articles on Wikipedia are *really* good — better written, more balanced and more comprehensive than the corresponding articles in any other encyclopaedia. (Have a look at the Featured Articles at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Featured_articles if you don’t believe me) Think of the website as a kind of ‘working copy’ of the project, working towards a verified release.

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  15. … the best articles on Wikipedia are *really* good — better written, more balanced and more comprehensive than the corresponding articles in any other encyclopaedia.

    I’m sure that’s true, “Anon” (or Callum, as your email address reveals you to be), but the problem is, there’s no way for the ordinary person of telling the great articles from the awful ones. If I wasn’t quite knowledgeable about beer, I might have thought the IPA article was great. The result is that a kind of Gresham’s law of information operates, where people’s lack of faith caused by inaccuracies spotted in poor articles permeates the entire project, leading to lack of faith in everything on Wikipedia. And I have had more thjan one person tell me they have laboriously corrected a Wikipedia piece, only for someone to “uncorrect” it hours later.

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  16. I understand that, and I agree that for that reason you can’t trust stuff on the live version of Wikipedia, as I said. What I was trying to say is that the live version is a good bit of software for collaborative writing, and it’s working towards a carefully vetted and sanctioned DVD version that is more ‘guaranteed’ and reliable, like a commercial encyclopaedia. I didn’t mean to suggest that everyone has a duty to take part, but just that it’s a worthy project — and that the existence of bad, false articles doesn’t mean the project is useless. Not that you said that, of course, and I share your frustration at people adding unverified falsehoods. (And it’s fair enough to write a blog post expressing that frustration.) And I do not recommend that people trust the info on the live version of WP (admittedly many people do trust it, but I think the overall spreading of true knowledge by the website massively outweighs its spreading of falsehoods).

    By the way, something else you might not know (ignore if I’m wrong) is that when you change an article on WP, the old version is still saved. If you click ‘History’ at the top of an article, you can access every single version of the article since it was created. So if someone reverts your changes, you can revert them back. Or better, go to the article’s ‘Talk’ page and write a comment arguing that the info you’ve added is indeed true, and maybe offer a link to a source that proves it. And hopefully whoever reverted your improvements will see their error. If they don’t, you can go to the help page to ask an administrator to mediate. Inevitably, the best articles are the ones with most people checking and cross-checking eachother, so the articles on less famous subjects (like IPA) don’t benefit from the same scrutiny as more famous ones. But such articles won’t make it into the DVD version. Evidently there aren’t enough active WP editors who know about good beer, and I suppose that’s why I’m preaching about it to you, in the hope you might persist in your efforts to get the IPA article corrected. But I concede it’s not for everyone.

    I don’t like writing my real name on blogs, sorry. Maybe it’s silly, but a lot of people use fake screen names, including you and most people in these comments, so please don’t publish people’s names gleaned from their emails. It says that info won’t be published. Sorry if my message came across as antagonistic; I just wanted to defend something I like by telling you about a little-known aspect of WP that you might not know about, and if you’re not interested, that’s fine. Sorry for the long-winded messages, I’m crap at being concise.

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  17. Hi,

    There’s been some renewed interest in the IPA article on Wikipedia. I’m sure you’re terribly busy–I certainly am, too–but it would be extremely helpful if you could take a quick look at the recent attempts at improvement.

    Thanks!

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  18. Well, just to disabuse a common myth about wikipedia (one that’s probably just as common as the IPA legend): it is quite reliable in those articles that receive a large amount of traffic, and attracting just a few experts willing to take the time to write a well-referenced article and explain their editing in the discussion pages significantly increases their effectiveness, since others who may be less knowledgeable will nevertheless understand which edits are good and which are bad and can play the role of policing, even if they don’t edit the article.

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  19. Josquin – well, it’s better now than it was, but there are still misunderstandings. Terry Foster’s book is – well – not the most accurate source. There’s no evidence I know of to say when Hodgson first began selling beer for export to India, and he wasn’t doing it himself anyway, it was the independent East India Company ship’s captains who bought the beer off him. Hodgson’s beer only had about half the Indian beer trade in 1800. The “exact reasons” why the Burton brewers got into the India trade aren’t a mystery at all – see both my Beer: the Story of the Pint and Amber Gold and Black for what happened. I don’t know where the idea that “many brewers dropped the term “India” in the late 19th century” comes from – “India Pale Ale” continued to be a part of the line-up of pale bitter ales for many, perhaps most brewers. “Hodgson’s style of brewing is probably responsible for term India Pale Ale.” – no – it was called India Pale Alebecause it was “pale ale as prepared for India”. “His beer was lower in alcohol than most beer brewed in his day” – no it wasn’t, it was probably around or slightly higher than the average. “… a greater proportion of the wort was fermented” – well, it would have been drier than mild ale, but not necessarily drier than aged porter or stout .. “and the beer was strongly hopped.” That’s true, but so were other beers meant to be aged.

    Hope that’s helpful!

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  20. Dave – Thom Thomlinson’s article on IPA, which you give a link to, has a number of problems, typified by this quote:
    “During priming [Hodgson] conditioned the beer with more sugar than was typical for pale ales. ”

    If he’d been doing that, he would have been jailed. 18th century English brewers weren’t allowed to put sugar, or anything put malted barley, into their brews. Fundamentally, however, Thom’s problem is that he posits a narrative where Hodgson actively invents India Pale Ale, but there’s no contemporary evidence for this whatsoever. I’m sure Hodgson and/or his successors would have boasted of this deliberate invention had it happened.

    The term “India Pale Ale”, to answer your question, doesn’t appear to have come into use much before the mid-1830s.

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  24. Lots of unsupportive comments here! I learned something from this article and agree that editing wikis can be thankless. Thanks for your efforts.

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  25. “Oh, and the East Indiamen ships did NOT travel “along the coast of Africa” on their way to India, they went via Madeira, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and St Helena to get round the Cape, and then up through the Mozambique Channel.”

    Maybe I’m geographically ignorant, but why would a ship sail from Britain to South America to get to India? This has to be a mistake.

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    • You’re not thinking hard enough, Rob. It’s nothing to do with geography per se. Sailing ships had to restock supplies regularly. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there wasn’t anywhere safe all down the coast of Africa – it was much safer to call in at Brazil (owned by Britain’s oldest ally, Portugal) and then go on to St Helena (British) and the Cape (British). So no, no mistake.

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