British Beer in India and the Beetles (Part I)

Tell Me Why

The history of British beer in the Raj, or the former British India, is forever a key episode in the long and many-faceted story of British beer.

In good part this is due to the emergence there of India Pale Ale, aka bitter beer or export pale ale. Later a force in British domestic consumption, I.P.A. spread to the U.S., Canada, and through most world markets until lager arrested and overtook its progress.

Yet I.P.A. proved its longevity and versatility by returning in the late 1900s to underpin modern craft brewing, first in North America then the U.K. and beyond (setting aside British bitter, itself a derivative of IPA/pale ale).

So what happened in India, then, after the first blush of fancy passed? Most beer consumed in India today is mass market lager, in tune with most of the world although craft beer has made some inroads there.

A comprehensive history of British and European beers in India, starting with British India and the self-ruled States, remains to be written. A good end point for a Part I would be 1946, with Part II commencing from 1947 (year of Independence) until the present. An analytical framework would examine why British beer imports declined in the later 1800s. After all, Britain still controlled India, with substantial influence in the Princely States, until 1947 and Partition.

There were three important stages in the history, broadly similar to what happened in Australia, as I discussed earlier. First, the era of beer imports. Second, local breweries emerge to compete with imported ale and porter but still make, as Indian breweries such as Muree did until WW I at least, top-fermented beers in the British tradition. Third, lager overtakes the market almost completely.

Imported – especially German – lager was starting to make inroads in Indian markets prior to WW I, also in South China and Hong Kong. Yet lager had no commanding position in India, certainly, up to 1914.

I will document all this in a Part II, but want now to focus on a potential issue with quality not hitherto explored to my knowledge.

In general terms, there are many statements through 19th century literature that British beer often arrived damaged in some way, sour, or otherwise defective with much thrown in the harbours. U.K. beer writer Pete Brown in his excellent 2011 book Hops and Glory, documents some of the story.

Another part of the quality picture relates however to barrelled beer imports impacted by insect infestation during storage in “go-downs”, or simple shed-type structures used to house supplies.

In 1893, an entomologist called W. F. H. Blandford, of the Royal Indian Engineering College in Cooper’s Hill, Surrey, performed a comprehensive study of this problem. C. 1890 seems rather late for such an exercise, but millions of gallons of British beer were still being imported to India, for the soldiery and others.

Blandford conjures (or for me) the stock figure of the angular, monocled Victorian scientist peering into an iron microscope. Whether he looked anything like that is hard to say, but his study impresses by its dogged detail and mastery of late Victorian entomology.* He identified X. Perforans, a boring insect either of India or “an acclimatized stranger” as doing the damage. Hence, a European species, unnoticed in the wood under a hoop or in a roughly finished part of the cask, might have infested the cask prior to shipment.

Still, cask damage was only apparent after “unshipment” or earliest on the ships themselves. Similar problems in Britain were unknown, in other words.

Takeaways from the study:

  • the insects proliferated near a leaky bung, boring in to lay eggs for reproduction
  • rarely did they bore all the way, but casks tended to fall apart from riddling with burrows
  • barrels were often stored 18-24 months in go-downs before consumption
  • Memel oak from the Baltic, especially of good thickness, resisted the infestation best
  • Whitbread brewery – known as I’ve shown earlier to use Memel oak exclusively – almost never had problems with its casks in India
  • Indian breweries, which by the 1890s were brewing double the quantity of imported beer, rarely experienced infestation problems
  • the fact that barrels were returned fairly rapidly to the Indian breweries, often in 6-8 weeks, seemed to minimize the problem
  • Indian breweries were able to send their beer direct to place of consumption (presumably due to proximity to customers) vs. storage at depots for distribution, so again less time for troubles to arise from damp or unclean store sheds
  • the above factors viz. Indian breweries applied despite that their casks used the same wood types as in Britain for cask plant. Indian sources of wood were tried but found not successful, or if suitable, the wood was too expensive or hard to find

18-24 months storage in India is an incredibly long time considering often the same time was taken to brew, store in Britain, and export the casks by sea. One can only wonder what 6%-7% abv IPA was like three or four years after brewing and half the time in a very hot, damp climate.

Hence, to the problem of sour beer arriving on ship, the problem of cask deterioration of famous-name beers kept long in insalubrious storage, must be added. This surely promoted the decline of British beer importations, as Blandford implies in his study.

Any full-length study of beer history in India would need to factor this and yet further influences, notably pricing, as to why British beer fell off in sales from the later 1800s. Technological factors must be examined too, e.g., bottling and its constant improvements from the later 1800s, also any improvements in logistical arrangements for beer distribution after Blandford’s study appeared.

(Blandford states he approached numerous breweries for information on the subject, but only one or two cooperated closely with him – the reasons why are self-evident).

Nonetheless, by the onset of WW I a few million gallons of British beer – mostly ale and porter but probably too some lager from Scotland or Wales – were still being imported. Indeed between 1902 and 1911 British beer exports to India enjoyed an uptick in sales. More soon on this background.

Note re image: Image above, indicated as being in the public domain, was drawn from the pertinent article on the British Raj in Wikipedia, here. Any intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*See discussion in the comments, where we thank Luigi Guarino for spotting an error in spelling of this term in a previous version hereof.

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