When do you think the expression “India Pale Ale” was first used? Much, much later than you’d imagine, and much, much later than the idea of a pale ale exported to the Far East. The term India Pale Ale does not appear in print until June 1837 (correction – a couple of years earlier, as I described here), more than half a century, at least, after pale ale brewed in Britain started being sold in India.
So what was it known as, then? Before 1837 the beer we now call India Pale Ale, or IPA, was labelled simply “pale ale” when it was being sold in India, or “Indian beer” back home in England, or, in the early to mid-1830s, “Pale Ale as prepared for India”.
On Thursday June 15 1837, however, George Shove, a wine and beer merchant of Threadneedle Street, close to the Bank of England in the City of London, advertised for sale in The Times, alongside “Guinness’s extra Double Stout”, six shillings and sixpence (6s 6d) a dozen bottles, Barclay’s brown stout, 6s 6d, and best porter, 4s 3d, and Edinburgh ale, 7s 6d, “Hodgson’s India pale ale, 6s 6d”, This was the first time, as far as either I or the Oxford English Dictionary can see, that the phrase “India pale ale” was ever used in print. Five days later William IV died, and his niece Victoria climbed on to the British throne. Doubtless some of her new subjects toasted her health in IPA.
I was digging around the Times archive after somebody on the Northern Brewer homebrewer’s site in the United States posted a link to my “George Hodgson didn’t invent IPA” page, which brought a torrent of hits (at one point around 75 per cent of my blog hits were coming from across the Atlantic) and a wave of anger from people upset that I was trashing one of their favourite stories. Somebody asked when IPA was supposed to have come in, which made me realise I didn’t actually know when the words “India Pale Ale” were first used. Somebody else complained that I was “nit-picking”. If saying “the generally accepted story about the birth of IPA is almost entirely wrong” is nit-picking, that’s a bloody big nit. Someone else complained that
“this guy is just going out of his way to poke holes in the common story about the ipa style … The point is that Hodgson was the first to brew ‘india pale ale’ (from everything i’ve read) and therefore brewed the first of the style”
which is entirely not grasping my own point, or points. The first is that the “common story” already has huge holes in it, and I’m not poking them, I’m just holding them up and saying: “Look – big holes!”. There is no contemporary evidence (and by “contemporary” I mean “contemporary with George Hodgson”) to support the “common story” that Hodgson deliberately designed a beer to survive the journey to India. No writer before William Molyneaux in 1869, in a book called Burton-on-Trent, its History, its Waters and its Breweries, says Hodgson invented IPA, and Molyneaux was writing more than 80 years at least after pale ale had begun being regularly exported to India. Certainly Hodgson never claimed it invented the style.
The main advantages Hodgson had were nothing to do, initially, with the quality of his brew, but the fact that his brewery at Bow, on the Middlesex-Essex border and some three or four miles from London Bridge, was close to where the East Indiaman ships set out from Blackwall on the Thames to sail to the East; and he was willing to extend lengthy credit to his customers. George Hodgson didn’t invent a new style, since the evidence is that what he sent out was no different, at least in the beginning, from other pale ales being brewed at that time.
Who says? Well, if you look at the contemporary evidence, it’s clear Hodgson wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, and very probably wasn’t a pioneer. Nothing contemporary suggests that the pale ales being sold in India in the 18th century were different from the pale ales being sold in England at the same time, or that exporting pale ale to India was any sort of innovation by Hodgson. Pale ale is mentioned by Michael Combrune in his Theory and Practice of Brewing, published in 1761. There is a good suggestion, in fact, that pale ale was being exported abroad from London before 1715: a book called Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne: Taken from Original Sources , by John Ashton, published in 1882, quotes the following advertisement:
Any Merchant that has occasion for Pale Ale and Stout, to send to the West Indies, may at any time be supplied at the Fountain Brewhouse, by the Hermitage, with Beer for Shipping at reasonable rates.
Unfortunately the book doesn’t say what the “original source” for this ad was, and it’s not even clear where the brewery was, but there was (and still is) a part of Wapping by the Thames called the Hermitage, and though I can’t trace a Fountain brewery there, the later Sun brewery, Wapping was certainly exporting ale abroad.
As far as pale ale exports to India goes, the British Library in Euston has a copy of a five-volume publication called Selections from Calcutta Gazettes 1784-1823 by W.S. Seton-Karr and Hugh Sandeman, which contains extracts from a number of advertisements from Calcutta merchants selling goods brought out to India by the captains of East Indiamen sailing ships, who were allowed to conduct private business on their own accounts. The first one to include beer, from April 8 1784, mentions “cyder, 20 rupees per doz.”, and “London porter and pale ale, light and excellent, 150 rupees per hogshead, 12 rupees per doz. bottles.” Among the points to be noticed here are (1) porter, as well as pale ale (and indeed cider) were being exported to India in 1784; and (2) pale ale wasn’t seen as anything out of the ordinary: it received no special underlining, and it was selling for the same price as the porter.
Another advertisement from the Calcutta Gazette a couple of years later, June 8 1786, deserves quoting more fully:
Per ship Phoenix: The whole of Captain Rattray’s Investment, purchased by messers Sanders & Lacey … exposed for sale at their warehouse on Wednesday next. From the very quick passage of the Phoenix (she having been little more than four months from England) they have every reason to expect that the eatables and drinkables will be in the highest perfection. … wines, Herefordshire cyder, Porter in casks, ditto in bottles, small ale and strong ale … cheese, hams … china, glass … perfume … clothes …and everything else to fit out a home.
So, not only porter, but “small ale” was being shipped to India. Small ale was made at a strength of four or five barrels from a quarter of malt, was lightly hopped and probably wasn’t much higher than about 4.5 per cent or 5 per cent alcohol by volume: so much for the idea that malt liquor had to be strong and well hopped to survive the journey east. We can guess that the “strong ale” was probably pale ale, but it wasn’t specifically being described as such. The ads also make it clear that the East Indiaman captains were not bringing out goods to sell to soldiers (or not just soldiers), but for the families of the East India Company’s civilian staff (the “civil servants”), to give them a literal and metaphorical taste of England in Bengal.
Other advertisements through the 1790s in the Gazette continue to mention small beer and porter from England for sale alongside pale ale, brewers unnamed. Then on January 22 1801 the Gazette printed an advertisement for the
Investment of Captain Lambe, No. 12 Old Court House Street just landed and now exposed for sale for ready money only … Beer from Hodgson, Sa. Rs. 140, claret 43 per doz, port 25 ditto, gin in pipes 3 1/2r per gall … hams, cheese, pickles, tongues …
This is the first mention I have found of Hodgson by name in India, and it is noteworthy that what is being sold is described simply as “beer”, no more specific than that. (“Sa Rs”, incidentally, stands for “Sicca rupees”, one Sicca rupee being worth around two shillings and sixpence, and assuming the price given was per hogshead, that suggests beer in India was selling for about six shillings and sixpence a gallon, more than four times what it cost at home in England.)
Clearly, though, Hodgson’s beer now had a reputation good enough for it to be mentioned by name, and the Middlesex brewer’s reputation continued to swell. In May 1809 the Calcutta Gazette advertised “Hodgson’s select Pale Ale, warranted of superior excellence, in new English quart bottles, at per dozen Sicca Rupees 11, and in chests of six dozen, at Sicca Rupees 68 … apply to J. Maclachlan, No. 3 China Bazaar.” At last the beer is actually described as “pale ale”.
An even louder eulogy for the Bow brewery’s product came in an advertisement in the Gazette from June 1822 for a “select investment of Prime London Goods, just landed from the HC [Honourable Company] ship Sir David Scott …port wine … English claret … perfume … hams and cheese … Hodgson’s warranted prime picked pale ale of the genuine October brewing, warranted fully equal, if not superior, to any beer before received in the settlement.” October-brewed ales were generally brewed stronger, to be “stock” ales, for maturing and keeping through until the following summer, or longer.
However, Hodgson was not the only brewer supplying the Indian market. His rivals included Barclay Perkins, the big Southwark porter brewer, which was brewing “India Ale” in 1799, and his near-neighbour WA Brown at the Imperial Brewery, Bromley by Bow, a short distance down the Lea river from Hodgson’s premises at Bow (and thus even closer to where the East Indiamen docked at Blackwall). Brown was advertising in The Times in August 1817: “Captains and merchants supplied with Pale Ale, prepared for the East and West India Climate, on liberal terms,” with the “captains” surely meaning the commanders of the East Indiamen. When the Sun brewery, Wapping, was put up for auction in June 1819 it was described as having “a highly respectable and lucrative shipping trade” which had been established “for many years” – the brewery looks to have been in existence since at least 1763. Another London brewer, Drury, Thompson and Neale of Southwark, “near the New Bridge”, was telling readers of The Times in February 1819 that it had “Ale, Pale Ale, Stout and Porter always ready for export orders.”
The differentiation in this last ad between ale and pale ale raises an as-yet unanswered point: “ale” was generally made from pale malt anyway at this time, so why was it necessary to have another type called “pale ale”? I suspect this was to do with the fact (which I haven’t blogged about yet, but I intend to) that more-hopped malt liquors even in the early 19th century were generally called “beer” while less-hopped malt liquors were called “ale”, an echo of the centuries-old arrival of hopped beer in Britain, at a time when ale didn’t have any hops in at all. Porter, being well-hopped, was thus always a beer. The malt liquor Hodgson, Brown and others exported under the name “pale ale” should properly, I think, being well-hopped, have been called “pale beer” to differentiate it from “dark beer”, that is, porter. The best answer I can give to why it was called “pale ale” is that “pale ale” is much more euphonious than “pale beer”, and so pale ale was what it was called.
London ale was generally sold “mild”, that is, unaged and relatively sweet. There is a fascinating reference in a book with the title of The White Man’s Grave: A Visit to Sierra Leone in 1834 by F Harrison Rankin, published in 1836, talking about why they were literally dragging dead soldiers out of the drains of Freetown after heavy rain, where they had fallen in while drunk:
“Rum costs a ‘cut-money’, or thirteen pence, a bottle; ‘Hodgson’s mild ale’, the only malt liquor, the same price: with such a choice it is easy to judge to which the lower classes would give preference.”
If the quote is correct, it looks as if Hodgson’s brewery was also exporting mild ale, to West Africa at least. (What is meant by “cut-money” here I don’t know: in the United States the term meant, literally, a coin that had been cut, in half or in quarter, to make change, but 13 pence isn’t a fraction of any British coin …)
The Bow brewery was certainly exporting other beers than pale ale even in the 1820s. An ad in the Gazette for June 5 1823 shows messers TR Wiltshire & Co of the British and French Ware house, Old Court Street, Calcutta, advertising “wine and esculentary delicacies” including “Beer and Porter from Hodgson”.
Incidentally, the often-repeated story that IPA only became popular in Britain after a shipwreck in the Irish Channel “about the year 1827” of a ship carrying 300 hogsheads of beer to the east, when some of the casks salvaged from the wreck, were sold off in Liverpool by the underwriters, is knocked on the head by an advertisement from The Times on January 11 1822, when 139 hogsheads of “Pale Ale brewed expressly for the India market” and “suitable for warm climates or home consumption” were advertised for sale by auction “at the Glasgow and Leith wharf, near the Tower [of London].” Who the brewer was, alas, the ad doesn’t say.
What it does indicate, by talking about “Pale Ale brewed expressly for the India market”, and taking it along with W.A. Brown’s ad from five years earlier, for “Pale Ale prepared for the East and West India Climate” is that there now appears to be in existence a type of pale ale that was qualitatively different from pale ale not brewed expressly or prepared for hot climates. But no particular big deal was made of it, it was given no particular special name and it was associated with no particular brewer. It certainly doesn’t say anything about what Hodgson was doing.
Click to read part 2