“It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”, advised Ian Brown of the Stone Roses. But, according to another Brown – Pete Brown, author of ‘Hops and Glory‘ – it actually rather helps if you are from Burton-on-Trent.
Hops and Glory is the story of how this small conurbation in the Midlands (where I had the pleasure of growing up) became “the greatest brewing town the world has ever seen, a wonder of the industrial age and a celebrated jewel of Queen Victoria’s Empire.” Or, as the book’s sub-title would tell it, Hops and Glory is “one man’s search for the beer that built the British Empire’.
Brewing in Burton goes back a long way. The very name “Burton” means “beer town” and the quality of the local ale was noted as far back as the 11th century.
This was an age when every town, village, and great house, brewed its own beer. What made Burton’s ale special was the mineral quality of the local water. Indeed, such were the reputed powers of Burton H2O that Saint Modwen made the little Trent island of Andressey her base for the carrying out of miracles. The future King Alfred was raised there under her tutelage.
But despite its reputation, Burton ale was rarely enjoyed outside of the Midlands, because beer famously didn’t travel well on England’s bumpy roads. Local brewers thus lobbied hard to get the River Trent made navigable up to the port of Hull.
Once smoother water-bound navigation was achieved, Burton ale soon built up an international customer book. Peter the Great was said to be “immoderately fond of Burton ale” and the future brewing giants, Allsopp’s and Bass, built their businesses on the ensuing Baltic trade, sating the thirst of the Russian emperor and his court. Closer to home, the diarist, Samuel Pepys, wrote enthusiastically about pint of ale from Hull in 1630, but he was almost certainly describing a draught of Burton that had been shipped down from the north east to London. Daniel Defoe simply stated that “[t]he best character you can give to an ale, in London, is calling it Burton ale.”
India Pale Ale
Britain, via the East India Company, had been expanding its presence in India since the early 1700s. As markets grew and Britain’s role turned from trader to conqueror, so there started to be a permanent colonial presence.
Considerable alcohol consumption was justified on the basis that local water was polluted, just as in England. But there was a problem in that the standard British fare of dark, porter ale couldn’t withstand the six month sea-journey round the southern tip of Africa and on to Calcutta. Indeed, such was the wastage, that a new product – tomato ketchup – was created by mixing stale beer with anchovies, mace, cloves, pepper, ginger and mushrooms.
Burton pale ale it turned out, was made of sterner stuff. With a higher alcohol quantity and hoppier flavour, Burton beer actually matured and improved during the sea journey, arriving as “a bright, sparkling bitter, the colour of sherry and the condition of champagne.”
The beer drinker’s Bill Bryson
‘Hops and Glory’ is Pete Brown’s account of his attempt to re-create the journey of India Pale Ale and discover the truth behind the claim that the ale improved in character on the trip. Or, as he explained to his disbelieving partner, “I am going to get a brewer to brew me a cask of traditional IPA, and I am going to take it by sea to India, round the Cape, for the first time in at least 140 years.”
From Burton, Brown and his ale take a narrowboat to London (falling in the Grand Union along the way – something I have thus far managed to avoid in 5 years of boating), spends 6 idyllic weeks on a tall sailing ship from Tenerife to Rio, and then courts isolation-induced madness on a cargo ship from Rio to Calcutta.
Burton Takes On The World
I lot happens on the way but I am going to stick to the tale of the beer and the revolution in colonial drinking habits that resulted from success of Burton IPA. A quote from the nineteenth century beer historian, J Bushnan, who seems to specialise in appropriate hyperbole, will do the job: “Since the year 1824 no Englishman has been reduced to the sad necessity of drinking French claret for the want of a draft of a good, sound, wholesome, and refreshing English Burton beer.”
The Cornhill Magazine of March 1891 went further: “The drinking of a glass of Bass’ pale ale, iced, in India in the hot weather, is an orgasm”. Thus India Pale Ale (IPA) was born and Burton bloomed into a major industrial town, criss-crossed first by canals and then by railways that took barrels of beer from brewery to dock and out to the world.
India became just one market of many for Burton ale and, according to Brown, as late as 1900 “the whole world looked to this small town for its perspective on beer.”
There was, of course, a darker side to this success story. Sales of beer to India blossomed as Britain’s imperial presence grew and its primary customers were soldiers, particularly after the vicious putting down of the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’.
Brown is a beer writer by trade, but his account of the excesses and brutality of East India Company’s rule is worthy of a popular historian. Operating will total disdain for the local population, Brown describes how the men and women of ‘John Company’ lived a life of ex-pat debauchery on the back of the vast profits made by exploiting their erstwhile hosts.
While the East India Company referred to itself as “The Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe” and at its height it controlled half the world’s trade and was responsible for a tenth of Britain’s income, Brown reminds us that: “At its very apex of power, the finances of the British Empire were utterly dependent on the Company’s activities as an international smuggler of illegal drugs.”
Indeed it was the shift into growing opium in India and selling it in China that destroyed the Burton ale’s primary export market. Previously, captains of the great East Indiamen sailing ships had been happy to stock up on heavy barrels of beer, which served both as ballast and a tradeable commodity. But beer (heavy, liable to sour, low margins) was not nearly as profitable a cargo as opium (light, addictive and selling at high margins).
East India Company ships thus stopped carrying Burton IPA, and while beer continued to be consumed in large quantities in India, the new fashion of the late nineteenth century and thereafter was for tasteless lager, brewed in India to a German recipe.
Rise and Fall
Back in Burton, Bass became the dominant brewer, supplanting the original Burton IPA manufacturer, Allsopps (later bought by the London-based Ind Coope), and registering its red triangle as the first British trademark. According to Brown, the Bass logo was as famous in the late nineteenth century as Coca Cola or McDonalds is today, and Michael Bass topped the international rich-lists. His factories extended over 750 acres, with 15 miles of railway track on brewery land alone, and the town of Burton was entirely dominated by the breweries.
That is still true today to some extent and certainly the modern visitor will still smell Burton almost before they see it. But its dominance of international brewing is no more, only Marstons remains of the breweries of Burton’s pomp (Bass having been bought out by Interbrew and then Coors in the 1990s and its eponymous brew now suffering a slow and ignominious death).
India Pale Ale itself had all but disappeared as product by 1950, with the last remaining true IPA, Worthingtons, rebranded as ‘White Shield’. More recently, however, IPA has enjoyed something of a revival both in Britain, albeit at much lower strength than the 7%ABV of the imperial age, and in California, where I have enjoyed a many a fantastic, hop-filled bottled brew.
The story of Burton is also largely untold today, outside the excellent National Brewing Centre. Indeed, having read Hops and Glory I find it incredible that despite growing up in the town, the story of Burton’s extraordinary brewing heritage didn’t make it into a single one of my history lessons and I can’t even recall a school trip to a brewery.
The East India Company was wound up in 1874 when its excesses became too much to defend, and today is even more anonymous than Burton. The site of its once sprawling offices is now given over to the Lloyds Building and the only monument to it of any sort is the East India Arms in Fenchurch Street, hidden in the shadow of the Gherkin and only open on weekdays.
Birthday present warning
Hops and Glory provides an utterly engrossing history of IPA and Burton, tangled up in a pacy account of one beer writer’s quest to revive their respective stock. I loved every page and it will be the birthday gift for any friend I think can be persuaded to show interest for years to come (just as it was an inspired present from Liz to me)!
Moreover, while the story of how Britain built an empire is not a thing of pride – piracy, drug dealing, slavery etc – Burtonians can at least rejoice in the role played by the humble pint of ale in giving one little Midlands town its fifteen minutes of fame.