British Beer in India and the Beetles (Part I)

Tell Me Why

The origins and fate of British beer in the Raj, or former British India, are forever a key episode in the long and storied history of British beer.

In good part, this is due to the éclat 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 far beyond until lager arrested its development.

Yet, I.P.A. proved its longevity and versatility by returning in the late 20th century to underpin modern craft brewing. This happened first in North America, then in the U.K. (setting aside British bitter, a derivative of IPA/pale ale), then almost everywhere. It was a repeating of the first success of the 19th century.

Bur what happened in India after the first blush faded? 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 in 1947 (the year of Independence) to 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.

I’ve discerned three important stages in the history, broadly similar to what happened in Australia, as I discussed earlier. First, there was the era of beer imports. Second, local breweries emerging to compete with imported ale and porter but still making, as Muree did until WW I at least, top-fermented beer in the British tradition. Third, lager-brewing overtakes almost everywhere and ale and porter wither.

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, 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 2011 Hops and Glory, documents some of the story.

Another quality aspect related to barrelled beer imports impacted by insect infestation during storage in “go-downs”, the simple shed-type structures that housed supplies.

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

Blandford conjures for me the stock image 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 Victorian entomology.* He identified X. Perforans, a boring insect either of India or “an acclimatized stranger”, as he put it, as doing the damage.

Hence, a European species might have infested the cask prior to shipment and gone unnoticed under a hoop or in a roughly finished part of the cask. If that was so, cask damage was only apparent after “unshipment”, i.e., in India, or earliest during the passage. Similar problems in Britain were unknown, in other words.

These are important 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 a very long time considering that often, the same time was taken in U.K. to brew, store, and export the casks. One can only wonder what 6%-7% abv IPA was like three or four years after brewing and perhaps half that time in a very hot, damp climate.

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

Hence when looking at the decline of British beer imports to India, the above quality factors are important, as well as the onset of local brewing and arrival of other foreign imports.

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 actually increased. 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.


*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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