Early Brewing Venture in Calcutta – Damp Squib? Part I.

A brewery venture in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was described in numerous media – consular reports, newspapers, trade journals – in 1908-1909.

The San Francisco Call in December 1908 covered the story, which you can read here.

The story contains a very interesting commentary on the fermentation system, describing a special yeast meant to work suitably at high temperatures. The account explains a small refrigeration plant would “cook” the beer prior to racking and packaging.

Every account I’ve seen repeats the same apparent typo, as cook probably was “cool” mistyped (or misprinted). One is tempted to think “cook” was correct, in the sense of beer being pasteurized. This seems implausible though in connection with refrigeration.

 

 

What seems more likely is a rapid chilling of the fermented beer to achieve precipitation of solids and sufficient clarity, perhaps in conjunction with cellulose or other filtering.

The account states the brewery was “about” to commence, and numerous German and English types of beer are described, as seen above.

Calcutta into the early 1900s had no brewery. It was one of the cities English brewers shipped I.P.A. into, from Hodgson in early days through to Allsopp and Bass from the 1820s.*

Indeed even the “hill” breweries finally established in British India later in the century could not compete in Calcutta with English imports, according to W.H. Carey in The Good old Days of Honorable John Company (1907), due to transport costs.

The evident solution was to build a brewery in Calcutta. It appears someone tried and came close to marketing beer. Was any actually sold, in other words? To date a sedulous search has revealed no evidence.

 

 

Our readers who work in the historical beer trenches might comment if they know anything useful.

As far as I know too, Carlsberg’s plant in Hooghly, near Kolkata, established in 2009, is the sole major brewery operating in Kolkata today – owned that is by one of the four or five big groups active in the Indian market. There are numerous small breweries in pubs, making a range of craft beers, but no other mass-market brewery to my knowledge.**

The beers meant for production in 1908-1909 in Calcutta clearly were not bottom-fermented. They must have been top-fermented with a yeast adapted to the high local temperatures. Some Belgian ale yeasts, especially for saison, can work at high, non-standard fermenting temperatures, c. 35 C.

Perhaps the pre-World War I venture in Calcutta relied on a yeast of this character, leaving only the hop and malt types to dictate the style parameters.

Of course true lager did finally arrive in India, apparently not until the 1960s by my canvass.  I refer here not of course to imports, long available in the country, but local brewing.

The ales and stouts inherited from the first British brewers long endured in other words, well after accession to independence in 1947, but today the mass market is all or virtually all international lager style.

See now our Part II.

Note re images: first image is a detail from the original linked in text. The second, of c. 1914 Calcutta, was sourced from Wikipedia, indicated as public domain. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

*See C.C. Owen. “The History of Brewing in Burton Upon Trent“, Journal of the Institute of Brewing (Jan.-Feb. 1987).

**See this Times of India link which source states (May 2018) there are three breweries in West Bengal. The second makes Kingfisher, the third Hayward and Budweiser. (Dhanekhali is part of Hooghly). Yet a fourth, sizable operation started up about the time this report appeared. It is Celebrity Breweries, which makes a premium brand, Kiq. For more information, see its website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Early Brewing Venture in Calcutta – Damp Squib? Part I.”

  1. The high-temperature yeast was called, by its discoverer, at least, Saccharomyces thermantitonum (“the heat resistor”). A chemist called Grove Johnson had discovered a yeast on eucalyptus leaves that had an optimum fermenting temperature of between 80º and 110ºF (27º and 43ºC), and which was happy to be pitched at 120ºF. Grove and his business partner, Percy Richard Hare, patented the yeast in May 1903. Their business, the ST Ferment Company, merged with Herbert Hobson’s British Beer Breweries, which specialised in concentrated beer wort, and they opened a brewery in In September 1908 in a large converted bungalow in Entally, a western suburb of Calcutta, using S. thermantitonum. Fermentation with S. thermantitonum, which was pitched at between 82º and 105ºF, was extremely rapid: malt mashed at 6am would be bright, sparkling cold beer at 2pm the next day, with a wort of 1042º OG falling to 1011º in about 18 hours . However, frequently the Entally Brewery’s beers had “a most disagreeable yeast bite,” and the real problem with thermantitonum yeast was that it did not produce a sufficiently bitter beer for many tastes, so that a quarter as much again hops were required, usually added late in the boil or during fermentation. See Geoffrey Dye, “S.T. Ferment Co Ltd and the Model Brewery, Norbury, London,” Brewery History, journal of the Brewery History Society, London, England, no 140, Spring 2011, pp57-70. The Entelly brewery looks to have closed in or about 1911, but British Beer Breweries opened another brewery, in Madras, in 1913, again apparently using S. thermantitonum. By 1914 this was brewing IPA, light dinner ale, a pilsner from Bavarian hops and Bohemian malt, and a London-style double stout. In 1915 it merged with two other South Indian brewing firms to form United Breweries Ltd – which is still going, of course.

    Reply
    • Very helpful, thanks Martyn. Prior to receiving these messages, I did learn, via BNA, about the British Breweries Syndicate – and its “S.T. Yeast” but I did not know what S.T. stood for – now I do!

      I can add more detail about other brewing they did in the Far East, and other brands they made, but this explains the background in more detail than I could have, at this point. Thanks again.

      Of course I will reference your notes in my Part IV to come.

      Gary

      Reply
  2. It’s interesting that they refer to the yeast as “barm”, because that’s what English farmhouse brewers seem to have called their yeast. There are a couple of references to British farmhouse yeast fermenting at roughly body temperature. So conceivably that’s what they used.

    Ron Pattinson also had a post some years ago about a brewery in India fermenting at high temperatures with a special yeast. I think they called it Saccharomyces theremantitonum or something like that (not a correct scientific name today). I tried googling for it, but failed to find it.

    Reply
    • Thanks Lars, interesting.

      Not aware of any other writing in this area, if Ron did author anything on these lines would be interested to see it. My work started with the San Francisco Call story.

      Reply
  3. Although incidental to this post, as we strive for accuracy, to date the asterisked note in the text reflects our understanding of the breweries currently active in West Bengal (formerly part of Bengal province, partitioned when India became independent). We added a fourth operation that started quite recently (end 2017), Celebrity Breweries near Kolkata. Its star brand is Kiq which per website uses German hops, Belgian malt, and rice adjunct. Press reports suggest the company, privately owned by Indian capital, is brewing or intends to brew some brands under contract. Budweiser was mentioned, as well as low-alcohol beer under changes recently approved by excise authorities for the state.

    Once again, there are numerous brewpubs making craft beer in Kolkata, not mentioned herein but information is easily available online.

    Reply
  4. But you wouldn’t want to be making “Pilsener” or “Munich” with saison yeast, you’d want something non-phenolic.

    Non-phenolic yeast adapted to high temperatures sounds like kveik…

    Reply
    • Ideally, yes, quite right on phenols, even for trad English for that matter (although more leeway there historically probably, e.g. in Australia before cooling some ales had that character by studies I’ve done).

      It is surprising so little apparently exists on this venture. There must be more out there.

      Gary

      Reply
      • Getting rather OT now but don’t believe the propaganda from US yeast labs about British yeast being non-phenolic. If you look at British yeast in something like the Brewlab catalogue maybe 40% of the descriptions mention phenolics. Particularly up north, where the extra attenuation of saison-type yeasts is/was particularly appreciated, and Yorkshire squares allows extra aeration to suppress phenolics to a large degree. But you can definitely get the phenolics in a good pint of eg Harveys or Sam Smiths on cask.

        Reply
        • That is a good point, thanks for that, as I can add my similar, sensory impression of some (trad, not craft) English beers on my last trips to UK. I recall one especially seemed saison-like in flavour, it was a cask ale, I think southern.

          I think there is a closer relationship between these sensory patterns than is often credited.

          By the way I think there was actually some brewing in Calcutta in 1908-1910 at least, look for a Part II post soon.

          Reply

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