Pukka Pale Ale* in the British Far East

This post reports further on India Pale Ale as assessed by Britons travelling or residing in the Far East. I have not seen these references addressed elsewhere, and mention this simply because so much has been written on India Pale Ale history: at this point it seems useful to highlight material of a novel nature.

My previous post discussed comments on Bass Pale Ale by a long-serving soldier in India, Fitz William Thomas Pollok, recorded in 1896. He thought that famous pale ale brands – Bass, Allsopp, Hodgson – were “far superior” when shipped by sail around the Cape of Good Hope.

About mid-way through his Eastern years, which covered c. 1850-1895, the much shorter Overland Route replaced the old Cape Route for commodities such as beer, or so we can infer from his comments. (A systematic study of outbound beer shipments during IPA’s heyday – the modes of transport, the cost, time to destination, handling, etc. – seems lacking in IPA historiography – a good topic for an economist to examine, in particular).

Of the two accounts below one is from Burma and the other, Indian Bengal, seemingly. Both pertain to circa 1900, as Pollok’s report.

The first is in a travel account, Burma, authored by Robert Talbot Kelly, published in 1905. He stated that on a camping trip with a Mr. Sulman, a mining engineer, in the Shan States, they saw over a shop door “Bass’s Pale Ale” and the “familiar red label” (the famous Bass triangle).

Sulman, who did not know Chinese, asked “John” for the Bass in English, pointing to “cobwebby and dusty” quart bottles. The Chinese storekeeper sold him a few bottles. The Shan kingdoms adjoin China, so then and now a significant Chinese presence characterizes these areas even as they are within Burma’s polity, today.

On return to camp they opened the bottles – no reference to chilling – and deemed the beer an “unaccustomed luxury”, “a glass … such as we never had before”.

The Bass was probably was the classic, bottle conditioned India Pale Ale, not the newer, lighter Bass introduced in some Asian markets in the late 1880s. Drinkers such as these surely represented the consumer norm, unlike Colonel Pollok who prided himself as a beer connoisseur. In other words, they liked beer no less than Pollok but likely had no particular knowledge of its make-up or the perils of the distribution chain.

Kelly, who had Irish roots, was a professional traveller based in England, and also a noted genre painter. Clearly he knew British beer, including surely draught and bottled beers in their fresh state. Still, he and his companions greatly admired the warm-stored, old Bass they found in a remote corner of Empire.

A report published in 1931 in an army medical journal, but relating probably to the last part of the 1800s, is similar, see here.

In this case, bottles of “Bass’s India Ale” had languished on a shelf for 12 years! At least the purchasers, a detachment from a hill station, asked about the age, but no qualms are conveyed on that account. If anything, it seems the antiquity added to the beer’s appeal, as the writer noted, “I never tasted such nectar in all my life”.

I cite these references as typical of the beer enthusiast without technical knowledge. Pollok understood differences between imported bottles of Bass and India-bottled beer. He knew skill was needed to bottle pale ale in optimum condition. He knew pale ale shouldn’t be sour, and even knew that German beer in India was “lager”.

Kelly’s Burma party and the Bengal station would have known little or none of this. Were they seduced into loving heavily oxidized, sourish beer by the romance of seeing a familiar label far away from home? The “travel” factor in food and drink appreciation – of being on the move in exotic locales – has often been remarked to ascribe unrealistic qualities.

Long-travelled Madeira, sherry and other alcohol (some whisky, for example) had a reputation for quality after circling the Cape or other long sea voyages. Perhaps some of this rubbed off when old beer was espied in the late Victorian Empire.

As well, in Britain a fashion, even mania, had existed for well-aged beer, for “vatted” porter and the squire’s cask of “old October”. Indeed aging was built into IPA from the get-go, it was built to last by definition, versus today, when people cavil from drinking IPA more than a month or two old (one of the oddest inversions you will find in a field replete with them).

Beer studies suggest frequently that such alleged gastronomic virtues were built up to justify hard-headed business practices. In the pre-refrigeration, pre-pasteurization era, beer needed to be long-stored to be available year-round and also to produce it economically. Much of the “old is gold” aura was as much commercial design as epicureanism, if not the greatest part.

And yet, think of Orval Trappist Ale, or some modern barrel-aged beers. The Belgian Orval bears many resemblances to 19th century pale ale including the Brettanomyces tang. Many love it when it is not new, but three years old, five, even more. They drink it when they can get it, in other words, not because they have to.

Or maybe it’s more simple than all this. Maybe our colonial Britons revelled in the bedraggled, superannuated Bass simply because it was beer.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from Wikipedia’s entry on the Shan States, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Pukka is an Anglo-Indian term that means authentic, genuine, top-quality.


3 thoughts on “Pukka Pale Ale* in the British Far East”

  1. Many words entered the English language when Britain colonized India (thug, veranda, etc). Pukka is one example. That doesn’t make it Anglo-Indian any more than cerveza is Anglo-Spanish.

    I don’t have a strong feeling about this word, but as a onetime scholar of India, I find it slightly disrespectful to credit a colonizer with a word appropriated from the colony.

  2. Jeff Alworth, an American beer writer, has raised a point on Twitter whether “pukka” is an “Anglo-Indian” term. He stated it is a Hindi word and was appropriated by the Raj like many others.

    Numerous sources state that “pukka”, which has, or had, variant spellings in English such as “pucka”, is Anglo-Indian, for example Hobson-Jobson, see here: https://books.google.ca/books?id=baFHAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=anglo-indian+lexicon&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwikzor8wPfoAhUqU98KHdCjDFYQ6AEIMDAB#v=onepage&q=pukka&f=false

    There are more recent citations (in English) describing the term as Anglo-Indian.

    I was well aware the word is Indian in origin, just as “kichiri” is the origin of the term kedgeree (for a rice- and-smoked fish dish), but in light of this background, and also the shades of meaning the term has assumed in English, it seems fair to me, in the context of the post, to call the term Anglo-Indian.



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