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A guest post by London Historians member, Martyn Cornell, first published in our members’ newsletter from July 2014.

It is doubtful that many of the hipsters drinking their craft-brewed, hoppy IPAs in rough-walled, high-ceilinged pubs in Hoxton and Hackney realise that the beers they are sipping have their historical roots not very far away, and that the very first beers to be called IPAs – India Pale Ales – were made by East London brewers.

Abbott's pale ale_b

Abbott’s Pale Ale, circa 1850.

Pale ale as a style of drink seems to have originated as a country speciality, popular among the gentry, and according to one 18th century writer it only came to London in the reign of Queen Anne, when those same gentry began spending more time in the capital, bringing their tastes with them. The popular drink in the capital was and remained a type of well-hopped dark brown beer that would eventually develop into the style known as porter, because of its popularity with the street and river porters of London. However, some London brewers began brewing pale ales as well, and not just for the home market: there is evidence that the Fountain brewery by the Hermitage in Wapping was exporting pale ale (and stout) to the West Indies from early in the 18th century.

One point of difference between the export pale ales and those sold at home was that, in order to survive the journey overseas, the export ales had to be more heavily hopped – one third more hops was “absolutely necessary” for beer sent into a warmer climate, according to one writer in 1768 – and heavier hopping is what links those 18th century ales sent out on sailing ships to hotter climes and the sorts drunk today in craft beer bars.

Ale and beer were being exported to the East Indies as well by at least 1711, carried there in the ships of the East India Company, which had a monopoly on trade between India and Britain. The company allowed its commanders and crew to carry all sorts of goods out east to sell to Europeans settled in places such as Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, including furniture, china and, clothes, foodstuffs, wine and cider, as well as beer. A ship’s commander could make up to £12,000 a year from private business, and by 1784 it had become the usual (though illegal) practice for an East Indiaman captain to sell his command to his successor for between 4,000 and 7,000 guineas.

The East Indiamen, as the ships were called, loaded up at Blackwall, just down-river from the Isle of Dogs. Generally, it seems, and certainly by the end of the 18th century, the commanders and captains did not travel very far to buy their beer, getting it from the brewery founded in 1752 at Bow, just up the Lea, by George Hodgson. It seems it was not just Hodgson’s nearness that attracted the officers of the East Indiamen, and the way that his beers could be easily shipped down the Lea by barge, but also that he gave them lengthy credit of up to 18 months: since a round trip to India could not be done in much less than 10 months, this was very handy.

Hodgson is sometimes said to have discovered the need to heavily hop ale that was being shipped out east, but there is no evidence for this at all, and nor is there any evidence that his was the first pale ale shipped to India: he was just doing what every brewer knew needed to be done to export ale. But while other London brewers also exported beer to India, his became the best known. Although Hodgson sold porter as well as pale ale to the East Indiaman commanders, it was for pale ale that the Bow brewery became most famous, perhaps because only the soldiers and servants drank porter in India, while the officers and gentlemen drank pale ale. It even had a song written about it, “sung at many a pigstick party and race meeting in the thirties, forties and fifties”:

Who has not tasted of Hodgson’s pale beer
With its flavour the finest that hops ever gave?
It drives away sadness, it banishes fear,
And imparts a glad feeling of joy to the grave.

O! to drink it at morning, when just from our bed
We rise unrefreshed, and to breakfast sit down,
The froth-crested brimmer we raise to our head,
And in swigging off Hodgson, our sorrows we drown.

By 1813 the Bow brewery was selling 4,000 barrels of beer for export to the east. Four years later the brewery was rebuilt by Bow Bridge, 230 yards east of its original site, and where a pub called the Bombay Grab had been running since at least 1805. (The name of this now-closed pub almost certainly comes from an East India Company warship, the Bombay Grab, a three-masted armed cruiser of the Bombay Marine active in the 1780s, of which an oil painting exists in the British Museum. A “grab” was a two-masted Eastern coasting-vessel or galley, from the Arabic gurab.) The brewery was rebuilt again in 1821, at which point its owners, Frederick Hodgson and Thomas Drane, decided that they were now going to cut out the East Indiamen’s officers and ship their beer to India themselves, thus taking all the profits from the operation.

 

Bow brewery c 1928_b

The Bow Brewery, circa 1928.

Unfortunately for them, the East India Company was so angered at this attempt to reduce the income of its ships’ commanders that it invited the brewers of Burton upon Trent to turn to the India pale ale trade. Within a few years Burton brewers such as Bass and Allsopp had captured the majority of pale ale sales in India.

Curiously, all this time the name “India Pale Ale” had still not come into use. Instead it was called “Pale Ale brewed expressly for the India market”, “Pale Ale as prepared for India” and similar circumlocutions. The first known use of the term “India Pale Ale” (or to be exact, “East India Pale Ale”) comes from a newspaper in Sydney, Australia in 1829, when it appears to be referring to a beer brewed by Taylor Walker’s brewery in Limehouse. The first known use of the term India Pale Ale in Britain does not occur for another six years, in an advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper published in 1835, though this time it was for Hodgson’s “very superior” East India Pale Ale, the London brewer evidently trying to get at least some of the Liverpool shipping trade otherwise easily supplied from Burton.

The trade for India Pale Ale at home, meanwhile, appears to still have been pretty limited. But in 1839 the railway arrived in Burton upon Trent, and within a couple of years the Burton brewers began shipping increasing quantities of their IPAs around Britain by rail – in particular to London, where IPA soon became popular with the middle classes. (One visible sign of this trade can still be seen down the east side of St Pancras Station, opposite King’s Cross Station, where the attractive arch-windowed frontage was once the stores for the Burton brewer Thomas Salt, with room for 20,000 barrels.)

London’s pre-eminence as the original home of India Pale Ale had now fallen away, helped by the fact that, unfortunately, Burton well-water, saturated with gypsum, or calcium sulphate, made a much better sparkling pale ale than London water, which is better suited to dark beers. Indeed, several big London brewers, including Charrington’s of Mile End and Truman Hanbury and Buxton of Brick Lane, had opened branch breweries in Burton to supply their pubs with pale ales, which is why many old Truman’s pubs still say on their stone frontages things like “London Stout & Burton Brewed Bitters”.

Meanwhile the firm that had once been synonymous with the Indian beer market faded into obscurity. From at least 1838 the Bow brewery partnership was known as Hodgson and Abbott, after apparently merging with Edwin Abbott of the Sun brewery in Wapping. It was “Abbott (late Hodgson & Abbott) by 1843, but by 1849 Edwin Abbott & Son, Pale Ale and Stout Brewers, were in business on their own at the Bow Bridge brewery. The operation was eulogised in 1861 by the comic writer Charles Stuart Calverley, who wrote a poem called Beer that began:

O Beer! O Hodgson, Guinness, Allsopp, Bass!
Names that should be on every infant’s tongue!

though while the last three were still huge names, the Hodgsons had been completely replaced at the Bow Brewery by the Abbotts at least 18 years before the poem appeared. In 1863 the concern became the Bow Brewery Co Ltd, and in 1869 it turned into Smith, Garrett & Co. In 1927 Smith Garrett was taken over by Taylor Walker of Limehouse. The Bow brewery was eventually demolished in 1933 to make way for London County Council flats.


Martyn Cornell is a historian of beer and brewing who likes to boast that he was born on the site of the former Upper Flask pub in Hampstead. He is a member of the editorial board of Brewery History, the journal of the Brewery History Society, and a founder member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. His publications include Amber, Gold and Black, a history of the beer styles of Britain (priced outrageously on Amazon at time of writing). Also Strange Tales of Ale, more than two dozen historical anecdotes involving beer, from flying mild ale to the D-Day troops in the drop-tanks of Spitfires to history’s most notorious brewer.’

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