I'm going through the four key raw materials of beer and telling their stories, and I'm currently up to water. It's the toughest one to do. Today, after writing about Dublin and Bohemia, I'm writing about the special water that made Burton on Trent the ale brewing capital of the world, and I've gone back into my first draft of Hops and Glory for help. That first draft was 50 per cent longer than the book that was eventually published. I remember my editor reading it and saying, "Look, I'm enjoying it OK? But I'm expecting to read about a sea voyage to India and all I'm saying is I'm on page 156 and I'm still on a canal boat outside Burton." My first attempt at editing it resulted in it being 5000 longer.
We had to be brutal. A lot of the granular history of Burton and IPA got cut, whole chapters summarised into a few lines each. I've sometimes regretted this because while many people tell me they enjoy the book, it doesn't get mentioned in the canon of historical research on IPA very often. It was aimed at a general audience rather than a beer geek or brewer, and some of the stuff serious beer heads might find fascinating really slowed the pace down for everyone else.
So this morning, I've dug out the first draft hoping to find a previously unpublished treatise on the properties of Burton water and its suitability for brewing strong pale ale. It's not quite there, and I've misremembered what a lot of the research actually told me. But I did find this, and I found it fascinating. If you're a hardcore IPA nut, you might find it interesting too. Long-read blog posts seem to be in fashion at the moment, and this makes up for me not writing anything else here, and there's no other way I can use it, so why not? If you don't fancy spending 20 minutes reading detailed beer history, you can leave now and I'll come back to proper blogging as soon as I can.
The following passage was cut down to about half this length in the book, and loses many of the primary quotes, which get summarised But in full, it tells the story of what happened when Burton IPA first arrived in India. In writing the book, I didn't just want to get an accurate handle on what the beer was really like; I wanted to know why. What made it work in India? Why did it take off? Why did the British in India drink it? How was it served? What did they think of it?
So here we are. To set the scene: The London brewer Hodgson's owns the beer market in India. He has good links with the East India Company's sea captains and they make a lot of money by transporting and selling his beers. But Hodgson gets greedy and tries to hike prices, flooding the market with cheap beer whenever a competitor appears, then whacking them up again when the competitor backs off. Campbell Marjoribanks of the East India Company visits Samuel Allsopp in Burton and suggests that he might like a crack at the Indian market. He gives Allsopp a sample of Hodgson's beer and Allsopp brews a version of it in Burton, unaware that the difference in brewing water compared to London (see?) will make it a dramatically different beer. But will its superior quality be enough to counter Hodgson's sharp marketing practices? He places his first brew on two ships sailing from Liverpool: the Bencoolen and the Seaforth. They're also carrying some of Hodgson's beer. Six months later, they arrive at the dock in Calcutta...
Given the Bencoolen factory’s historic reputation as a disease-blown, drink-sodden, last chance saloon that convicts would rather hang than be posted to, and its censure by 'John Company' over its enthusiasm for Burton ale, it’s perhaps fitting that Samuel Allsopp’s first consignment of strong beer for India went on a ship of the same name. But much had changed in the century since the Bencoolen public table’s legendary binge. Affairs in the east were more organised, more civilised now. Beer was a respectable drink, a sign of good standing, drunk by people who were creating a New England that was different from home in only a few key respects: it was much hotter, a bit more dangerous, and they were able to live like lords rather than clerks.
But an exotic world still lay outside the window. Fanny Parkes, arriving only a few months earlier, painted a vivid picture of the sight that would have greeted the Bencoolen as she made her final passage up the Hugli River:
Passing through the different vessels that crowd the Hoogly off Calcutta gave me great pleasure; the fine merchant-ships, the gay, well-trimmed American vessels, the grotesque forms of the Arab ships, the Chinese vessels with an eye on each side the bows to enable the vessel to see her way across the deep waters, the native vessels in all their fanciful and picturesque forms, the pleasure-boats of private gentlemen, the beautiful private residences in Chowringhee, the Government-house, the crowds of people and vehicles of all descriptions, both European and Asiatic, form a scene of beauty of which I know not the equal.
A further key difference is that here, beer was still a luxury rather than the centuries-old staple it was back home. The market Hodgson’s dominated was not huge. John Bell, who compiled trade figures for the Bengal authorities, estimated the average annual consumption of beer at almost seven thousand hogsheads, a quarter of which went to Madras, the rest to Bengal. ‘There is reason to suppose that the demand would increase if the price was steady’, he wrote, ‘but while it fluctuates from six to fifteen rupees a dozen it is not likely that the consumption will be increased’. On the contrary, ‘thousands would be compelled to give it up and take to drinking French clarets, which are and have been selling at from three to eighteen rupees a dozen’. French clarets? Less than a decade after Waterloo? No, we couldn’t have that. The supply of affordable beer had to be stabilised.
The fact that pale ale occupied a very similar price range to French claret speaks volumes about the quality of the beer and the demand for it in this climate. That quality was strictly upheld by the import agents. Some historians wax dramatically about how rejected beer was poured away into the harbour. This did sometimes happen – WH Roberts heard from a correspondent in 1845 of 80 hogsheads being poured away – but it would have had to have been incredibly bad beer to warrant such measures. The Calcutta Gazette carried plenty of ads such as the one in April 1809 for ‘62 hogsheads of REJECTED BEER, bearing different Marks, imported on the Honourable Company’s ship General Stuart.’ Even broached casks – with beer that could only have been stale – were sold for anything they could get: ‘8 full and one ullaged Hogsheads of Damaged Beer imported on the Honourable Company ship Tottenham’ were sold by Captain Hughes once permission had been given by the customs collectors.
Because even beer that couldn’t pass muster had its uses. It might have molasses pitched in, the sugar giving it an additional fermentation, then be watered down and mixed with spices to disguise the rank taste. If it was too bad even for that, it could be used to form the base of ketchup: one of the first recipes for ‘catsup’ was devised by Hannah Glasse in 1747 ‘for the Captains of ships’. It could keep for up to twenty years, and consisted of stale beer, anchovies, mace, cloves, pepper, ginger and mushrooms.
But there was to be no Samuel Allsopp’s ketchup after the tasters had done their work. The Burton pale ale was approved. The cargo went to the city’s auction houses, and the Calcutta Gazette filled up with beer ads.
Hodgson was clearly at the swamp-the-market phase in his protectionist cycle. He must have got wind of Allsopp’s intentions, because eleven and a half thousand hogsheads of beer were imported in the 1822-23 season, double the amount of year before, four times the amount the year before that, and double anything that would be achieved for the rest of the decade. The ads in the paper became increasingly lyrical in their praise. In April the front page boasted ‘prime picked’ Hodgson’s pale ale, which ‘surpasses in superiority of quality, any of the former season’s... as fine Malt Liquor as ever was drunk’.
The price of ale plummeted. Hodgson’s beer was selling for twenty-five rupees per hogshead – the price of Allsopp’s ale was set at twenty. It was a good start, but it wasn’t great – twenty rupees a hogshead when in some years you could get fifteen for a dozen quart bottles was not the basis for a profitable business. John Bell wasn’t happy:
The enhanced scale of importation which took place in 1822-23 was both unwise, and attended with great loss to those immediately concerned with the trial of monopolizing the Indian market; and the sorrowful winding up of that speculation, by forced sales of unsound beer... evinced a want of proper discrimination on the part of those whose time would have been more properly and advantageously employed in the immediate exercise of their calling.
Allsopp’s second consignment fared better, helped by a fortunate bit of circumstance. When the second ship, the Seaforth, came in, Tulloh & Co as usual offered ‘the finest stock of HODGSON’S ripe PALE ALE to be met with in India’, but further down the page sat the following notice:
To be sold by Public Auction, by Messrs Taylor & Co, on the CUSTOM HOUSE WHARF, by permission of the Collector of Sea Customs, at eleven o’ Clock precisely, on Saturday next, the 28th Instant, 48 HOGSHEADS of Hodgson’s BEER, and 17 empty HOGSHEADS, landed from the ship Timandra, and 30 hogsheads of Hodgson’s BEER, landed from the ship Seaforth.
A good portion of Hodgson’s beer had spoiled. Allsopp’s beer, on the same ship, had not. This time, it fetched forty rupees at auction.
With a journey of up to six months each way, brewers in England had to wait for up to a year to learn how their business had gone. But slowly, the letters began to arrive back in Burton. Mr Gisborne, a customer of the first order, wrote to Allsopp in July 1823 asking if the trade in Burton ale could be expanded, recommending that he be given the authority to bottle the ale for retail on arrival. In November 1824, Mr J C Bailton wrote from Calcutta:
I have watched the whole progress of your ale… With reference to the loss you have sustained in your first shipments, you must have been prepared for that, had you known that market as well as I do; here almost everything is name, and Hodgson’s has so long stood without a rival, that it was a matter of astonishment how your ale could have stood in competition; but that it did is a fact, and I myself was present when a butt of yours fetched 136 rupees, and a butt of Hodgson’s only 80 rupees at public sale.
Captain Chapman wrote that the ale had turned out well, that a bigger shipment should be sent the following year, and that even then it might be scarce. In the same month, Messrs Gordon & Co. wrote:
After bottling off a portion, which was approved by our friends, the demand for this article has since been very great, and we now have orders to some extent for this ale. We would, therefore, strenuously recommend Mr Allsopp to make further consignments of it; and we have every reason to believe he will have a fair competition with Messrs Hodgson & Co.
The trickle of orders coming in via agents in Liverpool and London turned into a steady stream. In 1824 Allsopp sent out two thousand barrels, and in October 1825, Captain Probyn wrote that large numbers of his passengers preferred Allsopp’s to Hodgson’s ale, and that ‘many who had been long in India, declared it to be preferable to any they had ever tasted in the East’.
In the Calcutta Weekly Price Current of November 1826, the following entry occurs:
ALE – Hodgson, per Hogshead 170
Allsopp’s Burton ” 170
No other beer is quoted.
In the Calcutta Gazette, the auction houses were advertising ‘a fresh importation of Allsopp’s Highly Admired Pale Burton Ale’. Messrs Tulloh & Co, for so long in the grip of Hodgson, (it was they who would go on to write the highly critical Circular on the Beer Trade of India) had much pleasure in announcing to the public that they had available a small batch of ‘ALLSOPP’S FAMOUS PALE ALE... Great attention was bestowed on the brewing of this batch, and is it has come out in the short period of 105 days from Liverpool, there is every reason to expect it will turn out as almost all Allsopp’s Shipments have done, in excellent order’. They still sold Hodgson’s beer of course, but now there was a worthy rival the copy for Hodgson's seemed a little less effusive: ‘it will be carefully examined by Messrs Watson & Co and none passed but such as is pronounced to be decidedly of the very best quality’, they reassured us, and while it was still ‘the finest beer that comes to the Indian market’, this was only ‘as far as the general taste goes’. As Tizard put it, ‘the spell had been broken’. In four seasons, Allsopp had shattered Hodgson’s grip on the market.
In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, there was something about Allsopp’s beer that was powerful enough to supplant the established, dominant market leader who seemingly held all the cards. Of course some of this success was due to the vision and determination of Allsopp himself, a man who ‘saw no difficulties which time, perseverance, resolution, consistency, and steady, unswerving honour could not overcome’. But there was more to it than that. What Campbell Marjoribanks couldn’t have realised when he decided to court Allsopp is that he was approaching a brewer who possessed a very special ingredient.
The Trent Valley is a broad trough carved out of ancient rock, covered with a layer of sand and gravel anywhere up to sixty feet deep. Rain water trickles through these beds for tens of thousands of years, and as a result, by the time it emerges from wells and springs it contains a unique composition of minerals that makes it not only superior to soft, southern water from London, but the best water for ale brewing found anywhere in the world. It has a higher sulphate content than any other major brewing centre, giving a dry, bitter flavour to beer. Sulphate means brewers can add large amounts of hops to the beer without it becoming too astringently bitter. Brewing scientists also claim that water for ale should be high in calcium – Burton has the highest calcium content of any major brewing region. It should be high in magnesium and low in sodium and bicarbonate – once more, Burton water is. The strong, hoppy beer devised by Hodgson was given a whole new dimension when brewed in Burton. It was a phenomenal stroke of good fortune, bringing a style of beer that suited the Indian climate to a place that would never have had good reason to brew it, but was, in the words of one later Bass historian, ‘The one spot in the world where the well-water is so obviously intended by Nature for kindly union with those fruits of the earth, to give beer incomparable’.
In 1828 a senior partner at George’s, a porter brewery in Bristol that had decided to experiement with pale ale, suggested that Hodgson’s beer simply didn’t match up to the new brews from Burton. Writing to Willis & Earle in Calcutta, he said of Hodgson’s ale, ‘We neither like its thick and muddy appearance or rank bitter flavour’. Two years later, when George’s joined the golden beer rush to Calcutta, the same partner explained, ‘We made a slight alteration to the Ale by brewing it rather of a paler colour and more hop’d to make it as similar as possible to some samples of Allsopp’s ale’.
Even if Hodgson’s recipe was recreated exactly in Burton, with the only difference being Burton instead of London water, the Burton version would have been superior in quality and character when it reached India. And Hodgson was simply his own worst enemy. Having already pissed off the East India Company to such an extent that one of its directors went out of his way to find someone capable of putting up a fight, Hodgson, surely expecting to rout Allsopp from the market, changed his terms of business in 1824 and shut out the very people he relied on to get his beer to India. According to the Circular on the Beer Trade in India, the captains and officers of the East Indiamen had been Hodgson’s best customers thanks largely to the generous credit terms he extended to them. Hodgson’s ale was ‘one of the principal articles in their investments’ until, in 1824, he not only raised his prices to them, but refused now to sell on any terms except for hard cash:
Hodgson & Co., confident of the power they had over the market, sent the Beer out for sale on their own account; thus they, in a short time, became Brewers. Shippers, Merchants, and even retailers. These proceedings naturally and justly excited hostile feelings in those engaged in the Indian Trade at home; while the public here, seeing at last the complete control which Hodgson endeavoured to maintain over the market, turned their faces against him, and gave encouragement to other Brewers who fortunately sent out excellent beer.
That ‘encouragement’ took many forms. Happy customers were eager to advise Allsopp not just on how to brew his beer, but when the best time was to send it. Then as now, one of the things that mattered most was that the beer was served cool, which wasn’t easy when the temperature rarely dipped below thirty degrees C and refrigeration wasn’t going to appear for another fifty years. Happily, one of India’s main manufactures provided the answer. In 1828, when young Henry Allsopp was working for Gladstone & Co, a Liverpool shipping agent, he received a letter for a Mr Lyon in Calcutta:
I would advise your father to ship his Beer in the month of November or latter end of October, to arrive here in March or April; it is then our hottest season, and the quantity of Beer then consumed is tremendous. Your Beer is certainly a most delightful beverage during the hot season; it is always cooled with saltpetre before it is drank; we can make it by this article as cold as ice.
‘F.E.W.’ reminisced in a newspaper article years later that ‘beer was always deliciously cooled with saltpetre, when everything else was lukewarm; a point very much in its favour’.
A bottle or flask of ale would be immersed in a solution of saltpetre. Water was added, and as it mixed with the saltpetre it would cool within a few minutes. It was an effective method but fiddly and expensive, especially given that a more lucrative use of saltpetre was in the manufacture of gunpowder, which the Company still needed even more than cold beer.
Gradually, an even more ingenious cooling method came into use. Bottles were hung outdoors, inside a cage or cradle, and covered with a wet cloth, the edges of which sat in a trough of water at the bottom of the cage. The hot wind evaporated the water, and the evaporation cooled the water. The cloths sucked up more water, creating a continuous cooling process.
Michael Bass soon noticed what was happening over at Allsopp’s. He’d already experimented with pale malts a few years previously, and now, shut out of the Baltic trade by Benjamin Wilson twenty years before, it was time for his revenge. Forced to turn back to the domestic market after the Baltic fiasco, Bass had built far better trading links with important cities such as Liverpool, London and Manchester. Now, his network was more developed than Allsopp’s, and he knew the canals better. From 1823 there was a sharp increase in Bass sales to London agents. By 1828 41 per cent of Bass’ output was going to London and Liverpool, much of it in large consignments for export. In 1828 the Calcutta Gazette was advertising ‘Hodgson’s Allsopp’s and Basse’s Beer in wood, and in bottle, of different ages, some all perfection, others approaching it’, and most auction houses continued to promote all three brands over the next few years. In 1832 Bass exported 5193 barrels to Calcutta – slightly more than Hodgson and Allsopp’s combined shipments. Although Michel Bass didn’t live to see it (he died in 1827, leaving the brewery to his son, Michael Thomas) his victory over Allsopp’s was decisive. The two would remain rivals for another century, each far bigger than any other Burton brewer, but Allsopp would never again quite challenge Bass’ supremacy.
In 1835 John Bell noted that the beer trade had fallen off again, and that ‘the most remarkable deficiency is in supplies from Hodgson; on the other hand, Bass and Allsopp have shipped more extensively.’ A year later, he could barely keep the triumph felt by Bengal’s populace from his remarks:
Beer is an article subject to the vicissitude of caprice more than any other article perhaps imported into Calcutta. A very few years ago Hodgson stood alone in the market, and the idea of rivalry was never entertained. Thus he was enabled to reach his own terms – cash – without any guarantee as to quality; and success, for some time, gained for him a name and wealth.
People in England and India, at length began to discover, that the magic spell might be broken by the strong hand of competition; and although some of those who first had temerity enough to enter the field against so formidable an antagonist, supported as he was by the strongest prejudice, suffered severely, Hodgson was at length defeated, and the market is now supplied by a variety of brewers.
Tizard was happy to advise this ‘variety of brewers’ on how to prosper in India:
The first point of consideration is Quality... The ale adapted for this market should be a clear-light-bitter-pale ale of a moderate strength, and by no means what is termed in Calcutta heady; it should be shipped in hogsheads which, we need scarcely observe, should be most carefully coopered... Another point is, that by frequent consignments, you acquire a name, which, as you may be aware, is everything in India.
While it would be a long time before the word was used freely in commerce, in order to succeed, these beers had to be strong brands. This was Hodgson’s legacy: his name became synonymous with quality. To beat him, you had to beat him not only on quality, but also on sheer brand awareness. It’s no coincidence that, fifty years after establishing itself in India, Bass would become the UK’s first registered trade mark.
As well as the triumvirate of Bass, Allsopp, and to an increasingly lesser extent, Hodgson, by 1833 brewers such as Ind and Smith, Worthington, Charrington and Barclay Perkins of London and Tennent of Glasgow were sending pale ale to India. By 1837 Bell notes the arrival of beer from the United States and ‘Cape Beer’, but these were to make up a tiny amount of the beer drunk in India – as Tizard states, it was ‘clear that England must furnish the supply’.
Imports doubled through the 1830s. The competition and regularity of supply stabilised prices, allowing the taste for beer to spread throughout Anglo-Indian society, right through to ‘the poorer classes of British inhabitants, which having once acquired, they will continue to indulge as long as prices remain moderate’. Allsopp’s ‘Burton India Ale’ lost out to Bass in sales, but was still considered by many, including Tizard, to be ‘the most salable’, thanks mainly to its ‘superior lightness and brilliancy’. Soon, according to Bell, ‘no less than twenty brewers now send out Beer from England, where one occupied the field a very few years ago’.
Beer now quickly supplanted other drinks. Sales of Madeira collapsed from 85204 rupees in 1829-30 to 21632 rupees in 1833-34, with Bell observing that ‘this once-favoured wine stands... as an example of the effects produced on trade by the caprice of fashion... the sudden distaste for Madeira would almost lead us to believe that some magic influence had been at work’. The consumption of spirits was ‘certainly not so great as formerly’, port was ‘limited’ and other drinks such as champagne and hock had ‘never been very great’. As for the over-supply of Claret, ‘we hope that the French have at last seen the folly of driving such a ruinous trade’.
As Bushnan remarked in 1853, thanks to the many fine qualities of Samuel Allsopp:
Since the year 1824 no Englishman has been reduced to the sad necessity of drinking French claret for the want of a draught of good, sound, wholesome, and refreshing English Burton beer.