Home » Cultural Life » A Drink for the Empire : The Curious Story of Bow Brewery and India Pale Ale

A Drink for the Empire : The Curious Story of Bow Brewery and India Pale Ale

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Bow Brewery 1827

One of the major changes in beer production in the last few years is the growth of craft beers. Following the example of American small brewers, a number of small breweries have been created especially in London to produce craft beer. One of the most popular types of craft beer is IPA which stands for India Pale Ale. Remarkably, India Pale Ale has a long history and is intrinsically tied to the Isle of Dogs and the surrounding area.

The East End has a long tradition of brewing, however it was to be the small and relatively unknown Bow Brewery that stood on the banks of the River Lea at Bow Bridge that would play crucial part in the development of India Pale Ale. George Hodgson had acquired the Bow Brewery in 1752 where he began to brew porter for the surrounding district. Porter was a dark bitter beer which was the most popular London beer in the 18th century. It was in the 1780’s when George Hodgson’ s son , Mark, decided to brew a type of beer for export to India, which would use a pale malt and plenty of hops. Although there was a large British presence in India, the decision to export beer to India was still a risky undertaking for a small brewery.

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

View of Mr Perry’s Yard, Blackwall by William Dixon 1796 (National Maritime Museum) 
Blackwall Yard was privately owned and built merchant ships and warships. To the far right, one of the ships flies the East India Company flag.

However, the Hodgson’s believed they could use local knowledge to gain an advantage. A couple of miles from the Bow brewery was the docks of the East India Company and possibly a family member called Thomas Hodgson just happened to be a captain of the East India Company ships. One of the perks of being an officer in the East India Company was that you could fill the ship with exports on the outward journey which you could sell in India. The Bow Brewery offered generous credit terms to East India Company officers to take their beer to India to sell to the British stationed there.

hodgson-eipa-jan-1835

Hodgson Advert 1835

The first trips confirmed that the combination of pale malt with a high proportion of hops produced a distinctive taste which quickly became a favourite brand of beer in India. In fact, Hodgson’s India Pale Ale dominated the market for a number of years creating almost a monopoly. Mark Hodgson died in 1810 and the running of the Bow Brewery was placed in the hands of a trust until 1819, when his son Frederick took control.   Frederick had developed a number of financial and commercial ventures before taking control at the Bow Brewery and passed the day to day running of the business to Thomas Drane, a brewer from Limehouse. In the 1820s, Frederick Hodgson maintained a virtual monopoly in the Indian market for his pale ale, however he faced accusations of price fixing by reducing supplies to get higher prices. Indian agencies began to look for suppliers who could provide a steady supply and large Burton breweries owned by Samuel Allsopp and Michael Bass took up the challenge to create their own India Pale Ale.

Allsopp beermat

Although there is no evidence that the Hodgson’s invented pale ales, Hodgson’s India Pale Ale developed into a brand known all over the world, but certain dubious business practices and the competition of the Burton breweries led to the business going  into decline and in 1843, Frederick Hodgson sold the brewery to another brewer, Edwin Abbott who carried on till 1862 when he was declared bankrupt and the Bow Brewery closed.

India Pale Ale was sold in Britain to many of those that had returned from India and had developed a taste for the drink. But over time, breweries developed their own pale ales and India Pale Ale gradually disappeared until its renaissance with craft beer brewers.

meantime-india-pale-ale

So the next time you are sipping your IPA, remember the origins of the drink is a small East London brewery that decided to quench the thirst of people that were building the British Empire nearly two hundred years ago.

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8 Comments

  1. roger tingle says:

    When I worked as a barman in the sixties, at a Norfolk pub heavily patronised by tourists, the only customers asking for an IPA were from the north of England

  2. David C. says:

    Any idea of where the Bow Brewery was located? I cannot find an accurate location.

  3. David C. says:

    Hi – any guidance on exactly where Bow Brewery was? I can see a Brewery on here -> http://mapco.net/cross1861/cross22.htm but on the current maps can’t place it. Thanks.

  4. Sally-Anne Shearn says:

    Hi, I work for the Borthwick Institute and we just came across your blog while researching a mention of Abbott’s Pale Ale in an 1850 letter! Specifically a lady advising her sister to swap from her usual brandy and water to Pale Ale and to ‘send to London for Abbott’s, Bow Brewery, 98 Grace-church St’, it is apparently ‘much better & wholesome than Bass’s.’

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