IPA, as in beer. India Pale Ale, to be exact. Though it must be noted that this particular style of beer did not acquire that specific name until at least a decade after the Regency, for the simple reason that is was neither sold nor consumed in England during the Regency, or for many years thereafter. During the Regency, one London brewery made vast quantities of the beer that would become known as IPA, but they shipped every barrel to India. It would not be until early in the reign of King George IV that other breweries further north made this same style of beer, and some years after his death before it was enjoyed across England.
How this pale ale evolved, made it to India, and how its principle brewer lost control of this extremely profitable market through greed and arrogance …
By the turn of the eighteenth century, there were a great many Englishmen in India. A large percentage of them were part of the monumental and complex bureaucracy of the East India Company, while others were serving in the ranks of its private army. There were still others who had gone there for other reasons altogether. Though most of these men adapted to the foods of the Indian sub-continent, there was one commodity which they sorely missed and for which there was no replacement in the warm Indian climate: beer. Until the advent of inexpensive and reliable refrigeration, it was not possible to brew beer in India, since the yeasts which were used to make beer and ale would not ferment in warm temperatures. There were other fermented and distilled beverages available in India, but none so refreshing to an Englishman as his beer. From the early decades of the eighteenth century, a number of different types and styles of beer were made in England and shipped to India, but few of them survived the journey in any state which might be called drinkable. In the years before the completion of the Suez Canal, when wind and sail were the only motive power for ships at sea, the voyage from England to India could take anywhere from three to six months. This was no pleasure trip. The seas were often rough, the climates harsh, and a large portion of the trip took the ship through the perpetually warm equatorial latitudes. The long voyage, the constant pitching and rolling of the ship, and the periodic temperature changes, which included extended periods of heat, were not conducive to the successful transportation of most English beers.
However, a few beers did make the journey successfully. During the late eighteenth century, one London brewer counted a number of officers of the great East Indiamen among his acquaintance. George Hodgson paid attention when the conversation turned to the beers which were shipped to India and the conditions to which they were subject during transport. As he came to understand the conditions in the cargo hold on a voyage to India, and learned which beers arrived in a state fit to drink, he realized the best beer for the journey was a keeping beer. Running beers were brewed to be ready to drink within a few weeks. Keeping beers were brewed to be stored in casks for several months to a couple of years in order to mature before they were ready to drink. There was one keeping beer in particular which he believed should be able to survive the long, hot, jolting journey from England to India. It had the added advantage that it was a style of beer which was regularly brewed and enjoyed by most of the aristocracy and the gentry of England, a large number of whose younger sons were in the employ of the East India Company.
The beer style which George Hodgson decided to brew for export to India was known as October ale. Sometimes also called stock beer, this beer was brewed in October and stored in casks to mature for two years or more. Because it was so expensive to brew, to that time it was most often brewed on the country estates of the aristocracy and gentry. Until well into the nineteenth century, most large estates had a brewhouse where the bulk of the beer which would be consumed on the estate was brewed during the autumn brewing season. In the mid-seventeenth century, when production of coke from coal was first implemented, it was used to malt barley for the making of beer. The use of coke allowed for greater control over the heat in malting kilns, which in turn made it possible to malt grains at lower, more even temperatures, with no smoke. The resulting pale malts actually imparted a much higher alcohol content to beer than did dark roasted malts. Dark malts could be achieved with either wood or straw as kiln fuel, which were much less expensive than coke, but offered no control over heat levels and generated a great deal of smoke, the flavor of which was absorbed by the barley as it malted. Therefore, pale malts were much more expensive than were dark malts, for more than two hundred years, until new kilning systems were introduced at the end of the nineteenth century. October ales were made with pale malts, partly as a status symbol for the gentry who could afford to brew with them, but mostly because they produced a more highly alcoholic beverage which kept well for long periods.
George Hodgson opened his Bow Brewery in 1752. It was located in East London, near the East India docks on the Thames River. Initially, he brewed mainly porter, which was a dark beer, brewed with dark malts, which made it economical to brew. Porter is believed to have gotten its name because it was very popular with the many porters who worked the London streets and docks hauling heavy loads from place to place. With such a large group of customers, porter sold very well and it was a profitable beer to brew. Porter was a dark, dense, rich beer which provided those who drank it with both fluid and a quick influx of carbohydrates, a welcome pick-me-up for hard-working men. Porter was also the first keeping beer to have been made by London’s commercial brewers, since it was aged in large vats for several weeks before it was transferred to casks and sent to taverns and public houses for sale. Prior to the second half of the eighteenth century, most commercial brewers shipped their beer as soon as it was brewed, leaving it to the publicans and tavern-keepers to age it, or not, before they served it.
There is no doubt that Hodgson was taking a chance in shifting part of his beer production to an October ale for export to the Indian market. But, since October ale could only be brewed for a couple of months in the fall, he could still brew porter for the rest of the English brewing season, which ended in April or May, when all brewing ceased as the temperatures rose. His costs would also rise, because he would have to use pale, rather than dark malts for this beer. But by brewing in October, he could also take advantage of the prime harvest time of the very best English hops, Goldings, which were grown in Kent. Fresh hops were usually more expensive than dried hops, but they imparted a much better flavor to the beer. More importantly, fresh hops had the strongest preservative properties, crucial in the making of a keeping beer which must make a long and arduous sea journey. [Author’s Note: It is rather ironic that the beer which came to be known as India Pale Ale, and was originally brewed as a variant of the October ale style in England, should be called ale at all. Originally, English ale was flavored with various herbs, but not hops. Hops first came to England from Flanders in the reign of Henry VIII. King Henry hated the bitter taste of hops and preferred his familiar, less bitter, English ales. So, well into the reign of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, beverages brewed with hops were called beers and those brewed without hops were known as ales. But by the turn of the eighteenth century, the terms "ale" and "beer" had become synonymous. Some ales were heavily hopped and some beers were lightly hopped, but all were brewed with some hops.]
It is generally believed that George Hodgson began developing his export version of October ale in the 1780s. He made generous arrangements with his acquaintances among the officers of the East India Company to transport his beer to India. Officers of the Company were allotted a certain amount of space in the hold of their ship on the outbound journey. Hodgson allowed them to take the barrels of beer on their ships and offered them very generous credit terms. They did not have to pay for the beer for eighteen months, time enough for a round trip journey to India and back. They paid Hodgson out of their profits from the sale of the beer in India when they returned. They also provided Hodgson with useful information on how each shipment made the journey, allowing him to perfect his brewing technique for his export ale.
Hodgson determined that a high alcohol content was very important to ensure his ale made the long journey, but he also realized the more hops he used, the better the beer would keep on the voyage. He stored the casks of ale for a few weeks before they were shipped, then just before they were to be put aboard ship, he opened the bung hole in each cask and added more hops, a technique known as dry-hopping. Opening the bung hole also allowed the carbon dioxide gas in the ale to escape. The release of the carbon dioxide had the added benefit that it significantly reduced the number of barrels which exploded during the sea voyage. Conventional wisdom would have had it that flat beer, highly hopped, would be very bitter, dark, dull and completely undrinkable. But conventional wisdom was wrong. The long, arduous sea journey compressed the maturation process of this ale from two years to six months and Hodgson’s ale arrived in India fully ripened, pale, clear, sparkling and especially refreshing in a hot climate. What was not understood at the time was that within the wood of the oak casks and barrels in which Hodgson’s ale was shipped was a yeast now known as brettanomyces. This yeast initiated a second fermentation of the ale during the voyage which consumed the residual sugars in addition to smoothing and muting the bitterness of the extra hops while enhancing their flavor.
The many younger sons of the English gentry living and working in India were predisposed to enjoy a crisp, sparkling ale based on the October ales which had been brewed on their family estates. But in addition, beer was regularly served with meals in India and Hodgson’s ale was a perfect compliment to the spicy Indian foods which most Englishmen had come to enjoy. Chilled, it was the perfect refreshing drink on a hot Indian afternoon. Hodgson’s ale was bottled when it arrived in India, and because ice was scarce on the sub-continent, those bottles were chilled by immersion in a solution of saltpetre dissolved in water. Saltpetre was plentiful and cheap in India.
By 1790, Hodgson had perfected the formula for the ale he was exporting to India. Those East Indiamen officers who were transporting his beer to India were making a tidy profit on their shipments. This was a very convenient arrangement for all concerned since the Bow Brewery was located very close to the London docks where many of the East Indiamen tied up for loading prior to a voyage. More and more officers were seeking out Hodgson’s ale to transport in their allotted section of the hold of their ships and Hodgson was steadily increasing the production of his export ale. Whenever an East Indiaman carrying Hodgson’s ale arrived in an Indian port, merchants were eager to buy the shipment and as soon as it was bottled, they placed advertisements in the local newspapers to inform residents of its availability. Sales were always brisk, for Hodgson’s ale had proven to be a reliably excellent beer and the name was trusted by Englishmen throughout India. About 1802, George Hodgson’s son, Mark, took over the management of the Bow Brewery, and he further increased the output of export ale for the Indian market. During the Regency, the bulk of the production of the Bow Brewery was export ale for the Indian market and the brewery was very successful. By 1813, Hodgson was shipping more than 4,000 barrels of ale to India and that amount continued to increase every year.
Despite Hodgson’s success with his Indian export ale, there was no real competition from other brewers in London, or elsewhere in England. The Bow Brewery was conveniently located for providing the ale to the East Indiamen loading at the London docks, and Hodgson, father and son, had both cultivated a large number of personal relationships with many of the officers of those ships. Such a situation made it nearly impossible for other brewers to break into that market. In addition, farther to the north, in the brewing town of Burton-on-Trent, vast quantities of beer were brewed for export. But all of that beer was shipped to Russia and the countries bordering the Baltic Sea. None of the Burton brewers were interested in the Indian trade, because they considered the booming Baltic trade less risky and much more lucrative. And so it was, until the year after the Prince Regent finally succeeded to the English throne. Things changed radically in that year of 1821.
In 1821, Mark Hodgson’s son, Frederick, took over the running of the Bow Brewery. That same year, he also went into partnership with Thomas Drane. Drane decided that they must increase profits and stopped the practice of favorable credit policies to the East Indiamen officers who had shipped their ale aboard their ships. This change made it impossible for most officers to continue with the ale trade, since few could afford to pay for the ale up front before they left England. The loss of this lucrative trade caused a lot of bad feeling among all those officers, and even with the East India Company itself. The Company was very happy to have a popular, high-quality beer regularly delivered to their many English employees in India, but they were equally happy to have the transport of that beer enrich many of their officers, at no cost to them. Having cut out the East Indiamen officers, Drane decided that they could further increase profits by shipping Hodgson’s ale to India themselves. At the same time, Drane significantly raised the price of the ale when it arrived in India since he believed there were no competitors to threaten their product. This price hike enraged both the merchants who handled Hodgson’s ale and the many Englishmen in India who considered Hodgson’s ale one of their important and enjoyable English pleasures as they labored far from home in a foreign land.
The East India Company was furious at this turn of events and sought a way to resolve this problem. The previous year, far away on the shores of the Baltic Sea, the Russian government had set in train the perfect solution. Most of the beer which the Burton-on-Trent brewers shipped to Russia was porter, which was extremely popular there. So popular that the Russian government learned the secrets of brewing porter style beer, built their own brewery and then banned the import of English beer. The brewers of Burton-on-Trent had already lost most of their Baltic trade due to the French blockade during the Napoleonic Wars. High tariffs in the Baltic countries prevented the restoration of that trade once Napoleon was defeated. Then the Burton brewers lost their lucrative Russian trade in 1821. Early in 1822, Campbell Majoribanks (pronounced Marchbanks), a member of the East India Company’s court of directors, invited one of the top Burton-on-Trent brewers, Samuel Allsopp, to dinner at his house in Upper Wimpole Street, in London. That night, Majoribanks explained to Allsopp that 10,000 barrels of ale were shipped to India each year by Hodgson’s, and if Allsopp and the other Burton-on-Trent brewers were willing to take up the challenge, they could replace their lost Russian trade by selling ale to the Indian market.
Allsopp agreed to consider Majoribanks’ suggestion and returned to Burton-on-Trent with several samples of Hodgson’s ale, provided to him by Majoribanks. This ale was much paler and more bitter than the beers which had been brewed up to that time by any of the Burton-on-Trent breweries. Job Goodhead, Allsopp’s head brew-master, experimented with replicating the Hodgson ale. Some thirty years later, he revealed that he had brewed his samples in a tea-pot. The resulting brew exceeded everyone’s expectations. Majoribanks would have been quite content for any decent ale which could be sent to India in volume at a reasonable price. Allsopp would have been more than satisfied to make up even a portion of the loss of his Russian and Baltic trade. What no one had counted on was the Burton-on-Trent water. London water at that time was quite soft and free of most salts, but the water of Burton-on-Trent was very hard indeed. The town was situated on an area of glacial drift through which the water percolated, enriching it with a significant amount of calcium sulphate. It turned out that these calcium salts were the missing component by which to create the perfect pale and sparkling ale brewed using pale malts and highly hopped.
In 1823, the Allsopp brewery shipped the first casks of their version of Hodgson’s ale to India. Things did not go smoothly at first. Hodgson’s dropped their prices radically in an effort to shut out the competition. Since their ale had an established reputation, it was initially difficult for Allsopp’s new ale to find buyers. But Hodgson’s could not keep their prices low indefinitely. And the superiority of Allsopp’s ale steadily won over more and more customers. Within a few years, Hodgson’s ale was struggling while Allsopp’s ale was becoming known as the premium pale ale in India. By the early 1840s, Hodgson’s had completely lost the Indian market and not long after, the Bow Brewery was sold off. Frederick Hodgson was still a wealthy man, and by all reports, was very handsome. He eloped with a Mrs. Trower, the beautiful young wife of an Indian Army officer. The couple went to Paris where Mrs. Trower held court as one of the reigning belles of the city for several years. Apparently, the couple lived well and happily in the French capital for the rest of their lives. There are no records of the later years of Thomas Drane, who seems to have been primarily responsible for Hodgson’s loss of the Indian market.
Hodgson’s sold all of their export ale to East Indiamen officers throughout the Regency. It is believed that this ale was not known or ever drunk by anyone in England during that time. Initially, Allsopp, and later, other Burton-on-Trent brewers, also shipped all their export ale to India. There is a tale that a ship bound for India carrying a shipment of this ale was shipwrecked on the coast of England, and that the scavengers who were able to get hold of a barrel or two soon spread the word about how good it was and soon all Englishmen were clamoring for this beer. There are a couple of problems with that story. First, there is no record of such a shipwreck anywhere, at any time during the nineteenth century. Second, if the beer had washed up on the coastline only a few days or weeks after being loaded aboard ship, it would have tasted quite terrible, since it had not yet been conditioned by the long and difficult journey to India.
Most beer historians believe that this export ale first came to the attention of English beer drinkers when more and more Englishmen who had worked for the East India Company returned home and were unwilling to give up one of their favorite beverages. These nabobs sought out the breweries which made their favorite ale, and many of them had the money to buy what they wanted. In the 1820s, this export ale was most often known as "ale for the Indian market" or as "pale Indian ale." It was not until 1835 that this beer was advertized as "India Pale Ale." By that time, it was well known and widely enjoyed throughout Britain. IPA is now one of the most popular beer styles throughout the world, but it all started in a London brewery in the last decades of the eighteenth century. And the first versions enriched three generations of the Hodgson family, before arrogance and greed destroyed their export business and lost them their brewery.
Dear Regency Authors, though none of your characters could enjoy a glass of IPA during the Regency, unless they were living in India, the "ale for the Indian market" might have a place in one of your stories. If you need to find a way for one of your characters to make a lot of money fairly quickly, if they are an officer of an East Indiaman, you could make them a friend of Mark Hodgson. Thus, they could take advantage of his generous credit terms to transport his ale to India in the portion of their ship’s hold which is allocated to them. Once they had sold the ale in India, and paid Hodgson for the ale after their return, after a couple of voyages, they would be able to bank a very tidy sum. By the turn of the nineteenth century, an East Indiaman captain could net as much as £10,000 per voyage if he were transporting and selling Hodgson’s export ale. Officers of lower rank could make as much as £5,000 or more per voyage handling Hodgson’s ale. Perhaps you have a character, a young man desperate to get to India, or one of the ports of call along the route, but he has no money for his passage. Might he take a job at Hodgson’s Bow Brewery, loading beer barrels aboard an East Indiaman, then hide himself in the hold as the other workers were leaving? Do you have other ideas of how Hodgson’s pale Indian ale might figure in one of your stories?