Of Madras, Malt and Margins



In my post of two days ago, I considered the likely strength of Hodgson Pale Ale, ancestor of modern pale ale and IPA. I mentioned two sources which alluded to its unusual strength, and here is another, from Chambers Encyclopaedia, published in both the United States and Scotland in 1860. It states exported pale ale was 10% in alcohol, let’s assume by volume. It even suggests that low attenuation could push the strength past 10%.

Its reference to the alcohol level of other beers, as well as the detailed description of brewing, give no reason to question the credibility; on the contrary. And we have seen how some IPA did in fact reach this level in the same era. Salt’s pale ale was one, and one from Allsopp, another.

Yet, this encyclopedia source, more or less contemporaneousstates that the range for export IPA topped out at OG 1070. Not much over 7%, that is. Earlier in the century W.H. Roberts said much the same thing in his Scottish ale-brewing book.

How to reconcile it? The only way is to assume they all were right. Some brewers, e.g., Bass, went for an abv which would not exceed 7% abv. Many indeed followed this plan. But some went higher, either by tradition or for another reason, hard to decipher at this date. No source is complete; they must be read together.

Bass may have been the more astute thinker. In that 1849 ad in Bristol, Bass Pale Ale was 4s. for 12 pints. Hodgson & Abbott’s India Ale, almost certainly a stronger beer, was 4s. 6d.

Bring yourself now to British India. Percival, a Lieutenant in the Madras Army, comes back from a day of language instruction at Fort St. George. He’s in family quarters, with Amelia. Young Ben bounds about. Amelia thinks another may be on the way, probably time to palaver with Percy.

It’s hot, and dusty, too.

Percy, you will have a bottle of Hodgson’s, won’t you, it’s just removed from the provisioner.

Yes, dear, snatched the words from my mouth, I’m rather parched.

Cork comes out, beer goes in. Not sweet, quinine-like, almost like tonic with gin, thinks Percy. Something of the stable there, too. Rather heavy for a beer, eh? Just as well to have only one, Amelia gets cross with too much spirit on the breath. Anyway there’s business to attend to later, Ben’s having trouble with geography, can’t fathom where Canada is, I hear. I must tell him cousin Neville is there with the Militia Rifles in Kingston, that will bring it home to him.

The month before, Percival was on exercises to the south. The staff were billeted for a week in a club nearby. The steward said they only stocked Bass. “And it’s as good a drop as you’ll know, Sir, I hail from Staffordshire, I know about good beer. Cures the mardy in yer!”. (Steward thinking, that stronger brown stuff we used to get was better, but never mind).

Amelia was at home but Percival creditably wants to maintain consistency of habits. He gets down a Red Triangle, one should be enough. But somehow the effect isn’t like the Hodgson. Perhaps a second Bass is in order.

Well, Steward, as the Captain is standing this one, I won’t be horrid and say no. [To Captain] Thank you, Sir. And dear Amelia, what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, I always say.

Happy to oblige, Lieutenant, and by the way I hear you’re doing very well in language studies. That’s important to get ahead here, you know.

Bass sells two bottles to Hodgson’s one. Does Bass’s profit offset the higher price of the Hodgson? I’d think it must have, even with more variable cost. True, Percy takes in more alcohol with a duo of Bass, but he would have been satisfied with the Hodgson alone.

Beeretseq’s parlous knowledge of the old English money, and ignorance of retail prices in the Raj, induce caution with respect to conclusions. But I think Bass may have hit the sweet spot in its day to benefit from multiple unit consumption. Brand management isn’t new you know, and the British invented capitalism by the way.

Some IPA sent to India was 5-6%, tiddlers. Some was 7 or 7.5%. Some was 9 or 10%, and that included Hodgson’s, IMO.

One thing most reading will agree on. British pale ale, any sort, goes very well with Indian cuisines. A local restaurant recommended to us is Madras Masala, and a visit soon is planned. Pale ale, wherever made and whatever abv, will accompany the meal, you can lay odds on it.


Note re image: the first image above, of Fort St. George in the 1700s, is believed in the public domain and was sourced from Wikipedia, here.  As requested therein, attribution is as follows: The painting of Fort St. George is by Jan Van Ryne (1712–60); Publisher: Robert Sayer – Old source New source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=300161