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Journal Home > Archive > Issue Contents > Brew. Hist., 111, pp. 63-68

Hodgson's Brewery, Bow and the Birth of IPA

by Martyn Cornell

Greed and luck were the parents of India Pale Ale. It was born from the desire of officers commanding the East Indiamen sailing ships to make a fortune supplying home comforts to nostalgic expatriate Britons in 18th century India working for the East India Company.

The East India Company was founded in 1600, and grew in the 18th century to be the most powerful force, economic and political, in India. One small reason for its success was that it allowed the independent ship’s commanders who carried its goods back from India to conduct private trade on their own accounts, thus keeping rival independent traders out. This private trading could be hugely valuable: a ship’s commander might well make up to £12,000 a year from private business, selling English goods in India, generally to the company’s "civil servants" in the trading posts known as "factories", and bringing Indian goods back to Britain. By 1784 it was customary, although illegal, for an East Indiaman captain to sell his command to his successor for between 4,000 and 7,000 guineas.

There were 70 ships in regular service in the East India trade, and the goods the commanders and officers of the East Indiamen bought out from London in the holds of those ships ranged from clothes, perfume, china and glass to hams, cheese, cider, wine and beer. It was everybody’s luck that one of the beers they shipped turned out to improve amazingly on the long journey from England to the East, creating a style that is still a world classic.

Beer must have gone east with the first ships from England to sail to the Indies, even in the 16th century, since, because water went brackish, beer was the regular drink on sailing ships. There is mention in 1638 of a ship’s captain in the East Indies being "well provided with … English beer." The East India Company made sure its "factories" were well provided, too: in one month, July 1716, the "factors" and other servants at the Company’s base in Bencoolen, Sumatra, consumed 24 dozen bottles of beer, as well as 74 dozen bottles of wine, 42 gallons of Madeira, 164 gallons of toddy, and a considerable quantity of arrack. By 1750 almost 1,500 barrels of beer were being exported from England to "Asia" generally, a figure that had risen to 9,000 barrels by 1800.

The East India Company’s docks were at Blackwall, down the Thames towards the sea from the City of London and just to the west of the mouth of the Lea. When the commanders and captains of the East Indiamen went to buy goods to sell out in India, they turned for the beer to a brewer close by, George Hodgson, just up the Lea at Bow. Hodgson, who had begun brewing near St Mary le Bow church in October 1752, was one of the smaller London brewers, making an average of just 11,200 barrels a year for the first 16 years of the brewery’s existence. But beer from the brewery could be got down to Blackwall easily by barge for loading onto the East Indiamen, and Hodgson gave the commanders and captains lengthy credit of up to 18 months. Thus they took their supplies from him rather than one of the bigger, better-known London brewers.

The beers the East Indiamen officers bought from the Bow brewery included porter (Hodgson was still shipping porter out to India even in 1823) and October beer. This was the strong, pale, well-hopped autumn-brewed stock beer popular among 18th century country gentry, a class whose sons probably made up a good number of the East India Company’s staff. A brewer in the 1760s, George Watkins, said that October ale was brewed at a stonking 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.

However, the October beer the East Indiamen officers bought from Hodgson spent four to six months or more at sea on its long journey to India, passing through the warm equatorial waters of, first, the mid-Atlantic and then, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Indian Ocean. The journeys were certainly rough: an East Indiaman would make only four or five round-trips before being broken up or sold off. But the slow, regular temperature changes and the rocking the beer received in its oak casks as the East Indiamen ploughed the waves had a magical maturing effect. By the time the beer arrived in Bombay, Madras or Calcutta, having gone via Madeira, Rio de Janeiro, St Helena, Cape Town and the stormy Mozambique Channel, it was as ripe as a brew six times its age that had slumbered unmoving in an English cellar. The expatriate British running the East India Company’s "factories" and commanding its three private armies loved it, and by the beginning of the 19th century, Hodgson’s was "the beer in almost universal use" in India. ("Beer" was what it was known as in India, rather than "pale ale".)

There is no evidence at all that George Hodgson knew October beer would be particularly suited to the rigours of a journey out to the East by sailing ship, or that he brewed a special beer to sell to the East Indiamen officers. Instead, it seems, he simply sold them a selection of what he normally brewed, and hit lucky with one particular beer. He was not especially entrepreneurial: he just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right product.

Pale ale, "light and excellent" was being sold in India alongside cider and London porter by at least 1784, an advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette for April that year shows. Pale ale, porter, "small ale" and strong ale continue to be advertised in the Gazette, brewers still unnamed, for the next 15 or so years. In January 1801 the Gazette at last carried an advertisement for the arrival of "beer from Hodgson … just landed and now exposed for sale for ready money only." The Bow brewery’s reputation was established in India, its name now a guarantee of quality: in 1809 it was being described in the Gazette as "Hodgson’s select Pale Ale, warranted of superior excellence."

The identification of India Pale Ale with an October-brewed seasonal or stock beer is confirmed from several sources. An advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette from January 20 1822 describing the "select investment of prime London goods just landed from the HC [Honorable Company] ship Sir David Scott", included "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." Three decades later the beer was still an autumn speciality: in the Leeds Intelligencer of 18 October 1856, Tetley’s brewery announced to its customers: "East India Pale Ale – This Season’s Brewings are now being delivered." Even in 1898 Waltham Brothers’ brewery in Stockwell, South London could say of its own India Pale Ale: "This Ale is heavily hopped with the very best Kent hops, and nearly resembles the fine Farmhouse Stock-Beer of olden times."

By 1811 George Hodgson’s son Mark was running the brewery. Within a couple of years, in 1813, some 4,000 barrels of Hodgson’s beer a year were being shipped to the East, four times the amount shipped in 1801. Four years later the operation had moved 230 yards east, to Bow Bridge, where a brewery tap was opened called the Bombay Grab: the pub first appears in Holden's Triennial Directory of London and County published in 1805. Much discussion has gone on over what a "Bombay Grab" is: the name almost certainly comes from the two-masted Eastern coasting-vessel known in Arabic as a gurab, or galley, and celebrates the brewery’s Indian trade.

The brewery at Bow Bridge was rebuilt in 1821, when it was being run by Frederick Hodgson and Thomas Drane. With the brewery rebuilt, Hodgson and Drane were now ready for a coup. They would cut out the East Indiamen’s officers and ship their beer to India themselves, retailing it themselves once it arrived, and thus gathering all the profit of the Indian beer trade. The charge for shipping a barrel of beer to the East, even for an outside trader, was no more than the charge for shipping one to Edinburgh. The partners opened an office in Cornhill in the City of London and set up as shippers. At the same time they ended the long-standing arrangement of giving 12 or 18 months’ credit on the beer they sold to the Company’s employees, raised the price by 20 per cent and refused to sell on any terms but cash.

Naturally, the East Indiaman captains and officers were furious: Hodgson’s beer had previously "formed one of the principle articles in their investments," as one commentator wrote. Hodgson and Drane also deeply upset the merchants in Calcutta and Madras, who found they too were now cut out from the most important brand in the local beer trade, Whenever the Indian merchants tried to import someone else’s beer, Hodgson and Drane dropped their prices so low, they frightened their competitors away. But even if the captains and commanders did find regular supplies of beer elsewhere, Hodgson and Drane were confident that their product had such a reputation in India, no one else could compete.

They could not, however, have been more wrong. Powerful men in the shipping business were determined Hodgson and Drane should not be allowed to wreck with impunity a trading arrangement that had help make their ships’ officers wealthy. Early in 1822 Campbell Marjoriebanks, who represented the shipping interest on the East India Company’s court of directors, invited the Burton upon Trent brewer Samuel Allsopp to dinner at his house in Upper Wimpole Street, London. Allsopp was suffering, like the other Burton brewers, from the loss of trade to Russia, their main market, after the Russian government imposed a huge tariff on English ale imports. Marjoribanks persuaded Allsopp that the Indian market could easily replace the Russian one, telling him that 5,000 hogsheads (or 7,500 barrels) of English beer were exported to India every year, and "we are all now dependent upon Hodgson, who has given offence to most of our merchants in India."

Allsopp went back to Burton to try to replicate "Hodgson’s India beer", which was paler and more bitter than the ales the Burton brewers were used to brewing. However, what Hodgson and Drane probably did not know, and even the Burton brewers were scarcely aware of, is that the well water of Burton, rich in calcium sulphate, naturally produces a much better pale, bitter ale than London water, rich in calcium carbonate, which is more suited to dark beers such as porter. Until London brewers learned how to treat, or "Burtonise" their water late in the 19th century, a Burton brewer was always going to make a superior pale beer, because his type of hard water made for better conversion of starch into sugar when pale malt was used in the mash tun. The beer could also be made paler, since the sulphate-rich water extracted less colour from the malt that London water did.

The first consignments of Allsopp’s new pale ale went out to India in 1823, Within a year the Burton brewer was receiving letters from the sub-continent telling him that his beer "is almost universally preferred by all old Indians [that is, Europeans in India] to Hodgson’s." Allsopp’s success in finding a new market could not be kept a secret locally, and two other big Burton concerns, Bass and Salt began to brew pale ale in 1823. By 1832/3 Bass had 43 per cent of a yearly beer trade to India of 12,000 barrels, Hodgson and Drane just 28 per cent and Allsopp 12 per cent. Hodgson’s trade continued to decline until, by 1841/2 it was down to only 6 1/2 per cent of 18,300 barrels a year, against 29 per cent to Bass and 36 1/2 per cent to Allsopp.

Slowly 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. In 1842 it was only the 25th largest brewery in London by consumption of malt, at just under 5,000 quarters a year, equivalent to a production of around 20,000 barrels of beer. It was still Hodgson & Abbott in 1845, 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:

The puzzle is that while the last three were still huge names, the Hodgsons had been completely replaced at the Bow Brewery by the Abbotts at least 12 years before the poem appeared. Either Abbott & Son retained the brand name Hodgson for their India Pale Ale business, or Calverley knew of the fame Hodgson once had, and did not know the Hodgsons were no longer in business.

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 demolished in 1933 to make way for London County Council flats.

This has been adapted from Beer: The Story of the Pint by Martyn Cornell, published in August 2003 and available from the Brewery History Society bookshop.

In the next issue, Martyn probes further into the dark mysteries of Porter.

Copyright © 2003 the Brewery History Society