Hop Myth: George Hodgson Invented IPA to Survive the Long Trip to India

Written by Martyn Cornell for Zythophile.wordpress.com

No, Hodgson didn’t “invent” India Pale Ale, and 18th century brewers before Hodgson were making beers that could survive a journey to India, and further.

A myth has developed that Hodgson, who brewed at the Bow brewery to the east of London, close to the Middlesex-Essex border, “invented a new style of beer, brewing it to a high alcohol level and using more hops than any previous beers.” There is no evidence whatsoever that Hodgson “invented” or “developed” a new beer especially for the Indian market: no record that he did so, no claim by Hodgson or his successors that he did so. India Pale Ale was not even, in fact, a particularly strong beer for the time, being about 6.5 or seven per cent alcohol, around the same strength as porter.

Despite some modern commentators’ declaration that India Pale Ale needed to be invented because the big-selling beer in the late 18th century in Britain, porter, would not survive the four-month journey to the East, porter was perfectly capable of lasting on board a ship much longer than that, as this passage from the journal of Joseph Banks on August 25 1769, when he was on board the “Endeavour” with Captain Cook in the South Pacific, shows:

It was this day a twelvemonth since we left England, in consequence of which a peice [sic] of cheshire cheese was taken from a locker where it had been reservd for this occasion and a cask of Porter tappd which provd excellently good, so that we livd like English men and drank the hea[l]ths of our freinds in England.

If a cask of porter could be “excellently good” after a year at sea, there is no reason to suppose any other sort of similar-strength beer would have to be specially invented to last the four-month journey from Britain to India. Brewers before Hodgson knew how to make strong, highly hopped beers that would keep for an extended period: the anonymous “Every Man His Own Brewer” of 1768 gives a recipe for two hogsheads of October “malt wine” made from the first two mashes off 22 bushels of malt, with six and a half pounds of hops per eight bushels of malt to ensure “a year’s keeping”.

George Watkins, author of “The Compleat English Brewer,” first published in 1767, said that October ale was brewed at a substantial 16 to 20 bushels to the hogshead, though “those with 20 bushels are too heady and some go as low as 10 to 12 bushels.” Even at 10 bushels per hogshead, or 6 2/3rd bushels a barrel, this would still give an OG of 1140 or more. October beer would be ready for bottling after 12 months, Watkins said, and should be kept in bottle for a further year, making it two years old before it was fit to drink.

Hodgson’s involvement in the India trade seems to be based on two lucky chances. The first was that the docks for the merchant ships that went to and from India, the East Indiamen, were at Blackwall on the Thames, just a short distance via the River Lea from his brewery. When the captains of the East Indiamen went looking for beer to sell in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, alongside a host of other goods from England including everything from china, to hams to furniture, they went to their nearest brewer, at Bow, rather than one of the big London concerns.

What evidence there is suggested that Hodgson made a number of beers, including porter, and an October-brewed “stock” bitter ale, of the kind described by Watkins, and that this stock ale was one of the beers the East Indiamen ships’ captains bought off him to sell in India. The “Calcutta Gazette” from January 20 1822, for example, contained an advertisement for the “select investment of prime London goods just landed from the HC [Honourable Company] ship “Sir David Scott,” including “Hodgson’s warranted prime picked pale ale of the genuine October brewing, warranted fully equal, if not superior, to any ever before received in the settlement.”

The second lucky chance was that on the four-month voyage out to India via the Cape of Good Hope Hodgson’s October stock ale underwent the sort of maturity in cask that would have taken two years in a cellar, and arrived in the East in prime condition. There is no evidence Hodgson planned this from the start or knew it would happen: he was just lucky.

Another myth is that English brewers were eager to break into the Indian market. In fact at the start of the 19th century the market was extremely small, just 9,000 barrels a year, equal to less than half a per cent of the two million barrels brewed in London alone every year. Hodgson probably had around half of the Indian market, but that probably in large part because his brewery was close to where the East Indiamen docked, and because he was willing to allow the East Indiamen ship’s captains extended credit, up to 18 months, on the beer they bought from him.