British India Greets the English Pub. Part IV.

Brewing in 1883 at Nilgiri Brewery, Nilgiri Hills, India

I include below the full report in the Madras Weekly Mail, June 7, 1883, of a visit to the Neilgherry Brewery. A more common spelling was Nilgiri Brewery, with Nilgiri sometimes taking an “s”. (This and all press references herein are via the British Newspaper Archive).

The report covers details of operation, including beer starting gravity and other granular aspects, not previously explored in beer studies to my knowledge.

The brewery was located at Ootacamund in the Nilgiri, or Blue, Hills in Southeast India, at an elevation suitable for year-round brewing, unusual in India at the time.

Briefly: the brewery was established in 1879, by Muree Brewery operating in the Himalayas, North India. Thomas Leishman, the Scottish brewing entrepreneur, later acquired Nilgiri, selling it in 1898 to parties who owned another brewery, and distillery in the area.

There were a number of breweries in these hills including Castle (from 1857), Nilgiry, and Rose and Crown (1895), which formed the nucleus for the United Breweries merger in 1915. The merger also took in brewing at Madras and Bangalore.

Once again caution is advised for the period denigrating references.


A few days ago, I inspected the Neilgherry brewery, and was astonished to find the large additions that had been made to the buildings to meet the demands of the Bangalore and Wellington contracts. The main body of the brewery consists of a room one hundred and thirty feet long by thirty feet wide, with a very lofty roof. In this spacious apartment are stored hundreds of casks of beer racked off, and seven huge gyles, one resembling the celebrated tun of Heidelberg holding no less than forty hogsheads. To see the yeast foaming and working in these huge vats is a sight. From the gyle we ascend by a ladder to the refrigerating and cooling floor; above this again are the coppers where the beer is boiled. Again we ascend and enter the mash tun room, in rear of which is the copper for boiling the liquor. It is not etiquette to use the term water when speaking of brewing.

On the left of the centre room, is a side room, some hundred feet long by 24 wide. Here grain and hops are stored. Beneath this is the cellarage, 100 x 24, capable of holding 500 hogsheads of beer. In addition to the main building, there is a vast cooperage and cork-storing shed, where busy coopers make the air resound with their blows, as they cheerfully drive the hoops home. Your native loves a noise. The other buildings consist of a kiln for malting, a large shed for storing beer, and the pretty bungalow of the brewer. The stores are capable of holding over one thousand hogsheads of beer, and can turn out 600 hogsheads a month. There is also an engine room, winnowing room, and last but not least, a cemented well of the most pellucid water, with an iron cover. As none but the best English hops and malt are used, it is impossible that the beer can be otherwise than good, as the water is undeniable.

At Muree [the brewery in Himalaya], native barley is used, and though the beer is excellent, it has a nasty flavour due to the native barley. The difference between the strength of country malt and English is no less than twenty-five per cent. So the Neilgherry brewery finds it more profitable to use English malt. The Burghers of the hills could grow good malting barley if they chose, but they are too idle and cannot understand that an article must be true to the sample. In former days, forty pounds of fair barley could be got for a rupee, now twenty-five, and that indifferent. On a brewing day, the scene is a busy one. First the water is pumped up by the engine into the huge boiler. When the temperature of the water is about 200, it is let into the mash tun, which has already had the ground malt supplied to it.

After sundry spargings, as they are called, the malt is allowed to soak for some hours, the liquor is then run into the coppers and then boiled until of a certain gravity – 25 lbs. is that for Commissariat beer (hops are put in according to contract). Some Edinboro’ ale is as high as 60 lbs. Well 25 pounds is equal to about seven per cent of spirit, so that in a quart of beer our soldiers get about one-fourteenth of spirit, or a very small glass diluted with 13 glasses of liquid. This is far better than the raw arrack ration. When the beer, by the instrument, shows 25 lbs. gravity, it is run into the cooler, where it remains a few hours, and from thence it is run over the refrigerator, which is composed of copper pipes, cold water running through the centre of the pipes the beer running over the pipes and into the gyle or tun.

The beer enters the refrigerator at 90 [degrees] and goes out at 58 [degrees], the cold water having reduced it some thirty degrees. After the beer is in the gyle, yeast is added, and on the strength of the yeast much depends, experts even being divided as to what constitutes good yeast. Some feed yeast with bone dust, but to enter into the question of yeast would absorb a book. At the end of four days, the yeast has done its work, the beer is run into casks or backs, where it settles and finally deposits all its yeast, it is then racked off and placed in the cellar to ripen. Finings are sometimes used to make the beer bright, often at the expense of the flavor of the beer. At the end of three months, the beer is sent away, and is sat upon by canteen Committees. Tommy Atkins [i.e., the soldiers], if he finds the beer taste[s] what he calls “full in the mouth” approves; the beer is passed and paid for. English beer being old is often deficient in that fulness in the mouth which Tommy Atkins appreciates; it tastes thin and sourish, but as the beer has been passed by a Committee in England, it is not so easy to condemn it, so Tommy has to drink it or take to arrack.

We have now seen our beer through all its stages, from the time when it was mere “hot liquor” and malt to when it was deposited inside our soldier’s stomach, not to his detriment, we trust, but rather to his physical well-being ; and that he may never drink worse liquor that the Neilgherry Brewery Company supply him with, is our earnest wish. It must not be supposed from the above short sketch of brewing, that it is all plain sailing. There are the mashing heats to be considered, the state of the water in the well, the heat of the ferments, which should not exceed 65 [degrees] and should average 60 [degrees], the state of your yeast, which is a ticklish plant to deal with; in fact in the present day brewing is a science and requires some chemical knowledge. The Neilgherry Brewery Company have two skilful brewers, and with large contracts before them have every chance of doing uncommonly well. Every contingency seems to have been guarded against, and with good brains, good water, hops, and malt, success if not certain should be very nearly so.

Some takeaways: the gravity translates to about 1070 OG, which (1883) would have produced a 7% abv beer or stronger, especially given typical Indian attenuations, which I will return to later. This was India Pale Ale, advertised by this brewery in the period along with porter. See for example ad in the Bangalore Spectator on October 4, 1881:



Note also in the 1883 account the sparging, a practice developed in Scotland.

The refrigerator only got the beer down to 58 F, much higher than today. The beer got a good three months’ storage, with finings used to clarify.

Generally felt indispensable to beer quality in the 1800s, finings here were thought detrimental to flavour, perhaps a local preference, or one peculiar to the writer. The slighting references to thin and sour ale imported from England tell us much, of course.

Reports through the century attest to this problem, with some beer regularly discarded on importation, but evidently once passed as good on exportation, much had to be taken by “Tommy”.

Fermentation at Nilgiri Brewery was conducted at a lower temperature than common today for ale, perhaps an attempt to secure extra stability.

This India pale ale, later termed (1890s) sparkling pale ale, was supplemented in time by a “Continental pale ale”. This evidently was made to compete with imported lager. I’ll look at this further later, and ditto for a cheaper brew made in the Nilgiri by some brewers, to sell in local taverns for a lower-income population.

As to materials (1883), Sussex and Kent hops were imported,  mentioned in the 1881 Bangalore Spectator story. The latter also mentions “malt”, which was prepared on premises. The 1883 account suggests English barley was being malted.

In time though Indian barley was used, sourced from the Punjab – and sugar. More soon.

N.B. For some fine views of the area today, see in Wikipedia’s entry for Nilgiri Mountains.

Series continues with Part V.


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