top of page

IPA's Passage to India, by Tristan Rutherford

Tonic Magazine, December 2020

The story of how the ultimate craft ale got its name, and how a continent became colonised, starts with a very fat man. Henry VIII was royally fat. The gouty king started dinners with custard tarts, orange pies, seal and porpoise. Main courses of boar, cygnet, teal and shoveler duck swelled the king’s waist to 54 inches. Ale, made by Britain’s religious orders, was drunk in slinging abundance - partly because fermentation rendered it a safer drink than water. Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, in favour of Anne Boleyn, brought the type of riches preferred by His Majesty: namely gold and booze. By divorcing Europe’s Catholic church, the portly monarch laid claim to England’s monastic wealth. He also inherited all the brewing income the monks accrued. 


Burton Abbey in the English Midlands sits on top of 20m of tightly packed sand and gravel. It takes 10,000 years for raindrops to seep through, rendering Burton water the most sulphurous and calciferous of any major brewing area in the world. In 1545 this profitable abbey, with its nationally-famed brewery, was nabbed by Henry’s accountant Lord Paget. As with many forms of creative accountancy, it proved a shrewd move. 


As Britain’s trade turned from Catholic France to Protestant Holland, Dutch hops were used to flavour Burton beer. The hops also acted as a preservative, maintaining Burton’s earthy tang as barrels of beer travelled to London by barge. Growing wealth meant more canals. In 1699 the 6th Baron Paget oversaw navigation to the North Sea port of Hull. More canals meant more markets. A century later Burton beer was being downed across Russia by saintly tsars and bedraggled serfs alike. 


Parts of 18th-century Russia were as civilised as a Muscovite cock-fighting saloon. Russian men cried ice tears and wanted 10% brews that could make a Cossack wrestle a bear. Burton readily supplied the ‘porters’ beloved of surly stevedores, and ‘stouts’ as strong as the name intones. Better still, these ‘Imperial Russian Stouts’ sailed from Hull to St Petersburg across the North Sea within the dank confines of a clipper’s hold. They arrived duly cellared and ready for a frigid piss-up, as dark and soupy as horsemeat borscht. The ships returned with oak timbers to make beer barrels. Plus swimbladders from Caspian sturgeons that acted as a fining, or clarifier, in the brewing process. In Burton, which shone as a bellwether of British trade, all was well. 


Until Napoleon Bonaparte strutted across the continent. In 1806 the French Emperor blockaded the British from European ports. Worse still, a disruption in trade drove Russia, Britain’s reliably sozzled punter, to penury. Bonaparte was cut down to size by Field Marshal Henry Paget, a descendent of Burton’s finest, who led the cavalry charge at the Battle of Waterloo. When the Russian economy reawoke from the Napoleonic Wars, the market had changed. The Tsars realised they could cut costs by brewing their own lethally alcoholic beer. The Brits were left with barrels of stout made for the Siberian winter, which they attempted to hock to their Empire troops in the Indian summer. It wasn’t a recipe for success.  


That’s because Britain’s East India Company troops were already hooked on a paler ale from London. So lucrative was the market (‘The Company’ boasted annual revenues, in today’s money, of £1.5bn, derived by three centuries of colonisation considered as rapacious as it was indifferent) that one man had made a monopoly of keeping Britons in India drunk. George Hodgson was the mercantile brewer behind the “India Ale” blend. By mashing a hoppy, high-alcohol mix, Hodgson’s creation could survive the six-month voyage from London’s East India Docks to the principal ports of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata - or Bombay, Madras and Calcutta as they were known by their Company overlords. Indeed the beer tasted even better on arrival. As barrels were used as ships’ ballast, the Kent hops matured in the cool waters around the Cape of Good Hope. 


George Hodgson was a model of Empire. In other words, he took no prisoners on price. In lean times, beer prices were hiked. When a competitor appeared with another India Pale Ale, Hodgson would flood the market with his liquid gold. His East Indiamen clipper ships returned home with cloves, indigo, silks and enough funds to buy more of Hodgson’s brew. It was all too much for The Company’s chairman Campbell Marjoribanks.


Marjoribanks visited Allsopp and Sons in Burton with a bottle of Hodgson’s beer. The Midlands brewery duly recreated the original India Pale Ale tang. Allsopps mashed the lightest barley into the highest gravity wort. The product was then stirred into a sulphuric water source that acted like a thermal spa to the soul. The result was an amber nectar that could ward off scurvy on the voyage to India, then disinfect the guts of colonial troops when it got there. Soon IPA was produced by 30 Burton breweries sited on top of 17 natural wells. 


The sea change for the drink came during the Great Storm of 1839. An East Indiaman ship bound for Bombay with 300 hogsheads of Allsopp and Bass beer foundered in the Irish Sea. Fortunately, her cargo was successfully discharged in Liverpool. Surprise, surprise, some of the consignment found its way into portside pubs. Liverpudlians lapped up the ‘export’ brew like ships’ cats sipping a saucer of milk. By the century’s close, Burton produced one in four pints in the UK. IPA helped make it ‘the beer capital of the world’. 


As the British Empire reached its plundering apogee, Edward VII, who revelled in the title Emperor of India, visited Burton’s Bass brewery in 1902 to mash his own ale. Bass had recently pioneered the world’s first trademark. As many of its globalised drinkers were either illiterate or pissed, all they had to do was look for the brewery’s red triangle. A red square - literally two triangles joined together - meant the Bass beer was double strength. Beer was so central to British life that during World War One the position of head brewer was a reserved occupation alongside teachers, clergymen, doctors and miners. Other workers were sent to be shot in the trenches without a second thought. 


In 1916 German bombs from a Zeppelin airship fell upon 40 Burton locations. The industry fell flat for the first time since Napoleon Bonaparte’s European tour. Overnight, boozing became an unpatriotic pastime. Wartime prime minister David Lloyd George claimed: "We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink.” Taxes on beer were boosted. The temperance movement distributed pledge cards which read: ‘I've decided to be teetotal while on service for my country'. Each signed card would be witnessed by a chaplain or an army officer. Wartime monarch George V took the pledge for the duration of the conflict. 


To reduce drunkenness during World War One the concept of ‘getting a round in’ was prohibited. The authorities assumed, perhaps correctly, that a group of four drinkers would hang on to sup four pints of IPA as each took their turn at the bar, compared to a solo imbiber who would head home sooner. From 1914-16 alcohol consumption in Britain slumped by 17%. Across the Baltic Sea the Russian Tsars attempted to follow suit. Vodka was prohibited from Moscow to St Petersburg - but the Russians simply made their own backyard brews. 


Today, Burton’s architecture recalls a frothy past. There are cupolas and clock towers. Spires and sepulchres. Romanesque follies and rococo façades. But the barrel that fuelled the town ran dry decades ago. Geoff Mumford, the 77-year-old founder of Burton Bridge Brewery, remembers the last orders at the bar. “India Pale Ale got degraded,” the no-nonsense Mumford tells me over pints of his brewery’s citrusy Sovereign Gold. “It started as an 8% cask ale, and finished as a 3.5% bottled beer.” By 1947, when India became independent from British rule, there were no Empire troops to send IPA to. Furthermore, breweries across the globe found a way to ‘Burtonize’ water, adding gypsum salts to recreate Burton’s sulphurous source. “Poundland was founded in Burton,” says Mumford, referring to his town’s post-War decline. 


Mumford is a former engineer at Allied Breweries, which was formed by the merger of historic marques Ansells, Tetley and Ind Coope. The concern firm is now owned by Carlsberg Group, who oversee 140 global beer brands. A century of automation had snipped workers employed in Burton’s beer trade from 10,000 to its current 400. 


IPA was a victim of such consolidation. Fizzy ‘continental’ lagers in metal kegs could be standardised then marketed en masse, with each cask promising the same flavour wherever it was tapped. Smaller brands lost out as tastes changed from heavy bitters to lighter lagers, many of them advertised nationwide on TV. IPA survived as a boutique beer produced by the likes of Mumford. His Burton Bridge Brewery pale ale represents a resolute return to form. At 7.5%, it replicates the original beers that could withstand the voyage around the Cape, then sing like a Bollywood songstress on arrival. Mumford now exports it in the opposite direction - to IPA’s current leading market: the USA. 


American IPA accounts for the green shoots of Burton’s brewing resurgence. Today visitors may witness wealthy Americans Instagramming the town’s brewery towers. Many are microbrewers on a Pale Ale pilgrimage to the Jerusalem of proper beer. That’s because two decades ago IPA came from nowhere to dominate the craft beer market in the United States. The trend arose from the availability of Cascade hops, a bulletproof US Department of Agriculture breed first released in 1971, which instilled wondrous grapefruit and citrus aromas into every home-brewed pint. Now the variety has dug its spurs into global IPA production as tenaciously as the East India Company subdued the subcontinent. Cascade hops, in green pellet form, can be purchased on Amazon then mailed anywhere in the world. 


Those Instagramming Americans are visiting Britain’s National Brewery Centre, which could only be sited in Burton. The tour is impressive, not least as it includes a trio of IPA beers in the museum’s own microbrewery. Museum curator Vanessa Winstone explains that Chinese, Indians and South Africans, each culture with a prodigious history of beer consumption, also frequent the home of brewing. “Today’s IPA has the same qualities as that sent to India two centuries ago, following a timeless process,” says Winstone. “Beer is so ingrained in Burton that pubs like The Coopers Tavern (which was once a store for Imperial Stout) allow pints to be carried into the Indian restaurant across the street.” The pub also serves new brews like Kolkata, a 5% IPA that brims with Indian spice and is recommended as a pairing for curry, the UK’s national dish. 


The United States is responsible for the final chapter of our IPA story. Gaurav Sikka, Managing Director at Arbor Brewing Company India in Bangalore, takes up the tale. “The Indian beer market is very similar to what the American market was in the early nineties,” he explains. Young Americans brewers, who had made “pilgrimages to Europe”, started recreating European beer styles “in their homes and basements and garages then slowly commercialised them. That’s the wave that India is following.”


That microbrewing trend hit India ten years ago. “A crop of folks like me who came back from the US, and were exposed to craft breweries there, wanted to bring a piece of that back home,” says Sikka. His brewing company's Beach Shack IPA, brewed in Goa where a wealthy domestic crowd vacations, fuses citrus and tropical fruit flavours into a refreshing India Pale Ale package. Do Sikka’s drinkers class IPA as a colonial product? “I don't think I see that to be very honest,” he muses. “IPA was born here actually so that's kind of a cool history.” 


One avenue does get Sikka excited. The chance to market his IPA where the whole story started. “Taking an IPA, and doing the reverse move of making it in India then showcasing it in the UK, would be really cool,” he laughs. Such a journey would complete the circumnavigation of the world’s most popular craft beer. Consider it Burton’s passage to India - in reverse.

Tristan Rutherford writes wine and spirit stories from around the world.

bottom of page