Review: Hops & Glory
Thursday, November 23, 2017
   
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Review: Hops & Glory

Hops and GloryNo beer aficionado needs to be told what India Pale Ale is -- the style is brewed anywhere there's a market of drinkers who really care about what's in the glass in front of them. American craft brewers have made it their own, with their signature bitter fruity hops and ever-increasing levels of alcohol. And the story of the style, how it was exported from Britain to India, maturing on the long voyage around the Cape, is inscribed on almost every IPA label. In Hops & Glory, Pete Brown not only gives the full intriguing story of India Pale Ale and its place in the building of the British Empire, but also sets out to recreate the journey from Burton-on-Trent to Calcutta with a cask of authentic IPA.

The book divides roughly between these two stories: on the one hand we have the history of the British in India, how their beer became an intrinsic part of their lifestyle. And on the other there's the tale of what happens when one man decides in the pub that he will take some IPA from the brewery in Burton to India by sea, to taste firsthand the effect of the journey on the beer. It is, in many ways, a book of discoveries. Pete gives us never-before-seen insights into British beer history and the mythology around IPA, and tells us candidly the things he discovers about himself on his epic voyage, including just what it's like to get cabin fever and skirt the edges of sanity.

His journey starts in Burton-on-Trent, the rundown former capital of Britain's brewing industry, where car parks and shopping centres now occupy the vast spaces where breweries like Allsopp's, Worthington's, Ind Coope and many more once stood. King of the Burton breweries, Bass still survives in a sort of half-life as part of the Coors empire. It was at the boutique brewery here, best known for Worthington's White Shield, that Pete's Calcutta IPA is brewed -- 7% ABV and dry-hopped with Northdown. They set out by canal boat for London, before the real journey begins.

The book tells us a lot about the logistics of setting up an itinerary which no-one has followed in some 140 years. The Suez Canal rendered IPA's traditional route pointless and no ship sails from Europe around southern Africa to Asia any more. Instead, he takes three very different means of sea transport: starting with a luxury cruise boat to the Canaries, transferring to a majestic tall ship across to Brazil (yes, England to India is via Brazil: the real world doesn't look like maps) and then seven unglamourous weeks as the sole passenger aboard a container vessel, re-crossing the Atlantic to the pirate-infested waters around Africa, stopping off in unbeery Iran, and finally reaching India to serve the beer to a local population who have never heard of the ale associated with their country the world over. Brown's chatty, personable writing style adds an extra realness and immediacy to the whole experience. We get to feel his elation at the helm of the tall ship, his frustration at the international bureaucracy he meets at every turn, and his emotional attachment to the barrel of beer which accompanies him, despite its attempt to scupper the plans and injure the author at every given opportunity.

Pete Brown: picture by Bog_MyrtleAlongside the travel narrative, the book explores the origins of IPA in its social and historical context. We start with the first forays of the British East India Company into Asia, seeking spices, and watch the development of a commercial colony in India and the lavish lifestyles of the merchant classes, heads of what can be regarded as the world's first multinational corporation. Imported drinks were a vital part of the luxury life, and Madeira wine was the first great fashion. It's noteworthy that the drinkers observed a positive effect of the journey on the wine, the heat giving it an enhanced caramel flavour. England's favourite beer style, porter, had been imported in some quantity, but the real status symbol for the Anglo-Indian merchant princes was the strong pale ales brewed at the manor houses of England. The trade in this beer was first dominated by the brewer nearest to the Company's east London headquarters: Mr George Hodgson. In the late eighteenth century, Hodgson cornered the beer market in India, becoming a highly respected brand name. However, after three decades in control of the Indian ale trade, Hodgson was deemed too big for his boots by the Company heads who encouraged other brewers, particularly those from Burton-on-Trent, to enter the market in competition. Soon, Hodgson's ale was surpassed by the likes of Allsopp's and Bass, limping along in its final years as a speciality beer for the returned Anglo-Indians, seeking to relive their colonial heyday back home. The eventual decline of all pale ale in India happened in the early twentieth century, beginning with the appearance of a more abstemious culture which frowned on the boozy excesses of the earlier colonists. This combined with advances in brewing technology which allowed locally-brewed lager to overtake imported pale ale. Today, IPA is completely unknown in India.

In amongst the history, the author injects a considerable amount of colonial guilt about the way India was treated by the British. The Company was largely given a free hand by the government to run things for the maximum profit at the expense of the natives. Later, a cultural hegemony took hold whereby all things Indian were regarded as inferior and the British way of life was seen as the only acceptable one by the colonists. Meanwhile, the nineteenth century opium trade turned the Anglo-Indians into the greatest drug pushers the world has ever seen, growing it in India and peddling in China, despite that country having made opium illegal. Yet wasn't until the Company's own army turned on it, and the brutal suppression of the revolt which followed, that the government in London put a stop to the massive privateering and took direct control of India in 1858. While travelling in India, Brown is amazed by how little the Indians seem to know or care about the past abuses of the colonisers.

Hops & Glory is a multi-layered, multi-faceted book offering the reader a wide range of stories, characters and histories. While it has clearly been meticulously researched, the author doesn't let dry historical theory spoil the readability: he freely admits that the history may not stand up to full academic scrutiny, but he more than makes up for this with its bright and breezy style. Only beer, the world's most sociable drink, could act as a focus for a book which is at once an intimate personal voyage of discovery and a sweeping historical epic, crossing centuries and continents. Hops & Glory is nothing if not engaging on all its levels.

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