1837 Sydney India Ale

The Beer For India That Never Was*

On December 25, 1837, a detailed proposal was published in the Sydney Herald to set up a brewery to export beer to India. The story is of interest not just on general historical grounds, but because it contains a suggested recipe for the beer.

First, it should be said that while Australia periodically was suggested in the 1800s as a source of supply for India, no beer of any significance was sent there until WW I when a sizeable contract was landed due to interruptions of supply from Britain. At that time, Indian breweries, in Muree and elsewhere, were established, indeed since the last decades of the 1800s, so the market would never be what it was when the Burton brewers dominated the trade. Also, the beer sent finally was lager, not the pale ale which was legend of the Indiamen trade.

The rationale in the article was that the beer in India was too expensive and the quality could be bettered. This kind of statement, written by a hard-headed trader, tends to counter further the inherited perception that pale ale in India was some kind of madrigal of the Indian drinks cabinet. In fact, it sometimes came sour or cloudy (this has been documented by beer historians) and was sold at a loss.

Still, the popular, or informed-popular, view persists that the beer was something special when perhaps the truth was more that people took what they could get.

Sydney is about 5000 miles from Calcutta, further than the London trip as the crow flies, but the trip was likely cheaper due to being a “straight shot” versus the long trip from England to and under Africa to get to Australasia before the days of the Suez canal.

Here is the introduction, from the editor (clearly):

Some time ago, we published an extract from a Calcutta paper containing a proposal to capitalists there, to establish a brewery at Sydney, for the supply, principally, of the India market. It appears that the malt liquor used in Calcutta is imported exclusively from England, and the writer of the article which has already appeared in our columns undertook to show, from a professed intimate knowledge of the subject, that, as the climate of India will not admit of the brewing of beer, that article could be had much cheaper and better than any imported from England (where it is made up for the market) by establishing a brewery at Sydney. The suggestion appears, not unnaturally, to have been unpleasing to the Calcutta beer merchants; and, accordingly, in reply to some adverse remarks, the writer of the former article again appears, in a rejoinder, published in the Englishman of the 5th July last. Without at present offering any opinion of our own, as to details, we will merely observe that the discussion itself goes, so far, to prove our repeated assertion that the attention of other countries is daily directed to this Colony, in some shape or other. The following is the article…

I expected to see a mid-1800s pale ale formulation, thus insisting on pale malt, a fairly high fermenting-out range (attenuation), very high hopping, and the other markers which W.H. Roberts in his Scottish Ale-Brewer book shows (1846) and also Ron Pattinson in his books, and others.

In fact, the recipe is not a pale ale recipe, at least as I apprehend it, but it has some elements of a pale ale recipe. The key to it is when the writer says he wants a beer which is “not particularly pale”. Reading the recipe as a whole, it is clear that the meaning of this is, not that he wants (necessarily) a darkish beer, but that he wants an ale attenuated less than pale ale, and possibly stronger. “Pale” meant dry, in other words.

When you look at his gravities and fermenting heats, he is making a mild ale, a XXX, IMO. Pattinson documents the type here, see especially p 29.

The recipe ferments at 34 brewers pounds per barrel, using 13 barrels of strong wort resulting from combining the first two mashes. It ends at about 10 pounds (inferred after the cleansing stage which starts at 16 pounds), which in gravity terms is OG 1095, cleanse at 1044, finish at 1027, respectively. In alcohol, that’s about 9.32% abv with a lower attenuation than pale ale, 71%. But he wants a beer – and says as much – that would equal or better the Indian average on abv. Presumably the voyage would add a bit of alcohol and take down the rich taste a bit, perhaps to a level he envisioned as ideal for the destination.

I think he was looking for a much richer taste than the lean, brett-influenced taste of long-stored and shipped IPA. The richness of English ale was probably a cherished memory for many who tasted Hodgson’s and Bass’s produce and they yearned for something different, or at least, an alternative.

This recipe would provide that, however, would it fret – re-ferment and spoil –  on the trip over? He doesn’t address that other than to require a few days working out so the beer would purge of yeast. This was to ensure a relatively stable product when loaded on the ships. But still.

No hops information is given, the boil stage is omitted, probably from space limitations. We can only guess whether a level suitable for mild ale or pale ale was used. I’d think the former given he says “not too pale” and the dislike of the “made-up” taste.

Finally, his grist is all-malted wheat. This is unusual and would not of course have been seen in England. Perhaps there wasn’t enough malting barley handy to Sydney then. Australia did later grow good malting barley, and still does. Working with an all-wheat mash would surely have entailed problems of mash drainage given wheat doesn’t have the thick husk of barley. But presumably he had a way around that. The article stresses the experience of this brewer and the recipe certainly shows that.

Who will brew the Aussie beer for India that never was? Call it 1837 Sydney India Ale.


*Due to Ron Pattinson’s suggestion (see in Comments) that 16 pounds cleansing gravity would likely fall to about 10 on racking, I’ve adjusted the text from an earlier version to reflect this. Thanks Ron.





2 thoughts on “1837 Sydney India Ale”

    • Thanks and I get an estimated abv of 9.32%, which arguably isn’t greatly in excess of what Hodgson Pale Ale was, as I argued here.

      His main point seems to be, or as I get it, not so much the strength, but it won’t be as “made up” meaning probably not as hoppy and tasting sweeter, more “aleish” to use a term from the era.

      But indirectly I believe it’s some evidence that Hodgson’s, which in ’37 would have been the gold standard or in peoples’ memories, was not a weak beer.


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