One Other Reason We Should Give Thanks to the East India Company

They were instrumental in precipitating the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War, but we can also give them a share of the credit for India Pale Ale. 

The Boston Tea Party, as all good students of American history know, was one of the major catalysts in fomenting public unrest in the years immediately preceding the American Revolution and War of Independence. One of the key players in the events that led up to that famous act of civil disobedience was the East India Company, to whom the British parliament had recently allowed preferential trading conditions (as a result of the lobbying of... well, the East India Company itself. You thought lobbying was a modern thing?), thus putting colonial tea importers at a disadvantage. They were, at the time, one of the biggest trading organisations in the world. They've been described as the people who built the British Empire. They were given the power to administer vast tracts of colonial India, and even had their own private armies which they used to enforce their authority and put down rebellion. These people were serious.

Their main trade from India was in commodities such as cotton, silk, spices, tea and opium, but there was also money to be made by shipping goods in the opposite direction, including beer - especially what eventually came to be known as India Pale Ale.

India Pale Ale is one of the most hotly and vociferously (sometimes even eloquently) debated beer styles among the beerati. How fresh should it be? Are the west coast, mouth-puckeringly bitter IPAs (Stone, Moylan's, Russian River) really representative of the style? Is Dogfish Head 120 Minute really an IPA? Who, if anyone, invented it? If it wasn't George Hodgson, what part did he play? Was it really highly hopped and higher in alcohol to survive the journey? What effects did the voyage have on the beer and how did it taste when it arrived in India? Should Greene King IPA (at a mere 3.6% ABV) be renamed Greene King Pale Ale?

Let's get the biggest myth out of the way first, and it's one that I've been guilty of disseminating in the past. The first beers sent to India were not dosed with large amounts of hops specifically for their preservative and antiseptic qualities, nor were they brewed with a higher ABV than other beers of the same style to make them robust enough to survive the journey. They weren't even called India Pale Ales for several decades. Specifically preparing India-bound ales with extra hops was a later development.

Most British beer styles of the time (late 18th/early 19th centuries) that are still in existence were often far hoppier than most British beer drinkers would recognise in the same styles today, including pale ale, but that doesn't mean it was anything like Pliny the Elder, Moylan's Hopsickle or Stone Ruination. The hops in question would have been English hops which have a softer, more earthy and floral flavour than the citrusy, piney American hop, and it's likely that the first IPAs would not have been quite as hop-forward as they were in later years. There was a convention back then for calling lightly hopped malt beverages 'ale,' while those with a greater hop addition were called 'beer.' This might date back to the time before hops were introduced to England and everything was 'ale.' Perhaps 'beer' was used to distinguish between a hoppy and an unhoppy drink. Today we think of pale ale as a hop-forward beer style, but that wasn't always the case in the 1700s. It's also likely that ABV of the beers originally shipped to India was in the 6.0 - 6.5% range. Hardly in Avery Maharaja territory, and most English IPAs today are quite a few notches lower in ABV than their US counterparts.

We digress. Where does the East India Company figure in all this?

Let's talk about George Hodgson. He was a canny businessman who also benefited from a lucky break or two. His brewery was situated on the River Lea at a place called Bow in east London (a mere javelin's throw from where the complex for a certain major world sporting event held this summer is having its final touches applied), giving his products good access to the River Thames, which at that time was a key transport artery for anything travelling to and from the metropolis. Conveniently, the Lea empties into the Thames near Blackwall, close to the dock used at the time by the East Indiamen (the merchant ships of the mighty East India Company). The captain of an East Indiaman was allowed to conduct business on his own account, a fact known to George Hodgson. The captains preferred buying beer from Hodgson's over the other London breweries because it was close by, but mostly because he allowed extended periods of credit to the captains so that they could sell the beer in India before paying for it on their return.

The East India Company took other styles of Hodgson's beer to India besides his pale ale, but there must have been something about the long voyage that had beneficial ageing effects on that particular beer (we'll go into that aspect of IPA another time). It became immensely popular. Hodgson's payment terms were immensely popular with the East India Company's captains. The foundations of today's IPA were laid; life was good.

As is so often the case with success, Hodgsons became greedy. Following many years of successful trading with the East India Company and doing very nicely for himself, George handed over the business to his sons. After rebuilding and then relocating the brewery (but only a small distance from the original building) George's son Frederick and his partner Thomas Drane, who were now in charge, decided to cut out the middle man and set themselves up as shippers. They also stopped giving credit and insisted on cash on the nail for all sales of beer. Predictably, neither the captains nor the EIC were happy about this, so the company approached another brewer, Samuel Allsopp, who had recently lost most of his trade to Russia after high import tariffs had been placed on British beer imports, with the intention of putting a stop to Hodgsons' shenanigans. Fortuitously (for Allsopp and for us), his brewery was located at Burton-upon-Trent, where the local water is particularly good at producing a clear, bright - and tasty - pale ale.  Allsopp's Pale Ale went on to become a huge hit in India, while Hodgsons went into a decline from which they never really recovered.

Allsopps was not the only Burton brewery to benefit from the India trade, and while the names of both Hodgson and Allsopp have vanished into beer history, a certain Wm Bass & Co., Brewers of Fine Burton Ales is still doing very nicely, albeit as a subsidiary of one of the the biggest beer conglomerates in the world.

There still exists, though, one tangible piece of evidence of Hodgsons. Well, sort of. There is a building in Bow (pronounced 'bow', like the knot you tie in your shoelaces, not 'bow' - the sharp end of a ship) which until the early 1990s was a pub called the Bombay Grab. A strange name for a pub in east London, but so-called for good reason. It was originally the brewery tap of the relocated Hodgsons brewery, and the name reflected the trade on which the company's success was built. 'Grab' is thought to be in reference to a gurab which was a coastal vessel common to India and parts of southeast Asia at the time, although the long-since disappeared pub sign depicted an East Indiaman in full sail. The building now standing isn't the original as the area was redeveloped before the second world war, but if you zoom in you can just about make out the remnants of the words 'BOMBAY GRAB' which were painted in big white letters on the roof.