And then there is the beer itself. A child of Britain’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion that rose to world-straddling greatness, IPA went on to be humbled by its upstart rival, lager. It had all but vanished when plucky supporters restored it to life and once more put the world at its feet. Here is a beer with a back story.
In the 18th century the British East India Company, originally set up to trade spices, turned its attention increasingly to importing fine cotton and silk from India. Its East Indiamen, “lords of the ocean” bigger than any other sailing vessels at the time, brought holds full of fabric back to London from Bengal, Bombay and Madras. But on the outward journey the holds were largely empty. A generous outbound allowance of cargo, eventually up to 50 tonnes each, was offered to officers and crew as a perk.
Boredom between the comings and goings of the ships led company men in India to make an “art-form of feasting and boozing”, according to Pete Brown, whose book “Hops and Glory” tells the story of IPA. To help this art-form along, wily entrepreneur-seamen packed the holds with hams and cheeses, crockery and glassware and good supplies of drink, mainly beer and wine, sometimes madeira picked up en route. The Company encouraged the imports, even taking an interest in guaranteeing their quality. After all, if the men’s carousing was not supported by wholesome supplies from home they might turn to local alternatives such as arak, which would surely send them mad.
By the late 18th century George Hodgson’s Bow Brewery had become the main supplier to this trade. The brewery was close to the East India Company’s headquarters at the confluence of the Lea and the Thames in east London, so Hodgson could schmooze captains and crew in local taverns. He offered them beer on generous credit terms—necessary given that the round trip could put off payment for a year or more.
The troops in India may have preferred darker, sweeter porter, but the wealthier traders hankered after more refinement. Hodgson’s version of pale ale—a lighter-coloured bitter that was a recent innovation—gave them what they wanted. Its (relative) pallor came from its malt, which is a grain, usually barley, which has been heated and dried. Sometimes called the “soul of beer”, malt imparts sweetness, colour and the starch that is broken down into alcohol.