I usually give some idea of the cost of the book from a single supplier. There is no particular significance to this, the chosen source simply being the cheapest I could find with minimum searching of the interweb on the date of the original posting.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Hops and Glory
One man's search for the beer that built the British empire
Pete Brown, Macmillan, London, 2009
HB, 458pp
£11.49 inc del W H Smiths online

Reviewed June 2009

India Pale Ale is one of those subjects. Start a conversation about it in beerophile or homebrewing company and things can get nasty, in a blood-on-the-firkin sort of way. Everyone seems to have an opinion, passionatly held, and facts don't get in the way of fervently expressed assertions. IPA is an instantly recognisable name, even amongst casual beer drinkers, yet very few have any idea what those three letters signify nor the history of this beer (for 'twas a beer despite it's name!)

Probably many homebrewers have wondered about the effects of transporting IPA to India as ballast on a East Indiaman and just how they altered the beer. There is no one to ask because the last cask was sent well over a century ago and those who have tasted it are long gone. No modern IPA, even the wonderful ones, have spent much time at sea and certainly haven't repeatedly cross the tropics and equator. The ships, and the very routes they took, have also faded into the past. Pete Brown is one who has wondered but after an encounter with an elephant in a pub (read the book) he decided to do something about it. Amazingly he still thought it was a good idea when he sobered up and managed (just about) to square it with his wife.

Hops and Glory, on the surface, is the story of his struggles to get the trip organised and then to carry it out. As you might expect it wasn't easy and things didn't go altogether smoothly. But it is so much more than that. Hops and Glory isn't an easy book to categorise. It's part travel book (Gavin Young's Slow Boats to China kept coming to mind), part history (the East India Company and the British brewing industry), and part a look at beer, beer culture, and our relationship to it. As a travel book it passes the essential test: it makes me want to travel to places I have never considered or to travel by the less familiar route and mode of transport. It's ironic, isn't it, that even "green" travel companies are quite happy to fly their clients all around the world? And he even made me think I might like cruising! Excuse me while I put my slippers on and make a nice milky drink.

Pete Brown is an keen observer of people and obviously likes most of those he meets (with one major exception—you can play Pete's Spot the Knob Challenge as you read—I think I spotted him!) and this shows in his description of the various characters he meets. I really want to meet WERNER the larger than life container ship captain and experience his bone-crushing handshake. While in Madeira Pete and his long suffering wife, Liz meet John Cossart who explains the mysteries of the production of Madeira. In a few pages Pete paints such a vivid, warm picture of this, clearly exceptional, man that there is a genuine sense of personal loss when we learn of his sudden death in a footnote at the end of the chapter.

As a popular history book it succeeds brilliantly too. Time and time again Pete slips historical information onto the page which defies belief, until you check it out and discover that it's true. It becomes very apparent that out collective knowledge of the "Honourable" East India Company (EIC) and the history of India has been very heavily sanitised and edited, to put it mildly. At times it made me quite sad and/or angry to realise what my ancestors did to the vibrant, sophisticated, and wealthy culture that they found in India. The EIC didn't admit to the existence of any responsibility other than profit. Death, mayhem, and the impoverishment of others were not impediments to making money, indeed they were not considered at all. After all, they were only "niggers", a resource to be ruthlessly exploited. Oh, and if the government think we have a drink problem they should find out more about the 18th-19th century anglo-indian's alcohol consumption. Just reading about it makes your liver go leathery.

There is a lot of rubbish information out there concerning IPA and I don't just mean Wikipedia. There is also a small amount of good stuff and plenty still to be unearthed from reliable primary and secondary sources buried in various archives. Pete navigates this tricky field rather well. He avoids all the obvious bear-traps such as "IPA was brewed strong to survive the journey to India" and "the UK population got the taste for IPA in 1827 when an India-bound ship was lost off the coast of Liverpool but it's cargo of IPA saved and sold off" but makes use of the good stuff that has been published, quite a bit of which is available on the internet, if you look in the right places. Then there are those sources in the archives, newspaper archives and the like. Unusually for a popular beer book extensive use has been made of these and it shows. Although it is not perhaps written as such, Hops and Glory is one of the best published histories of IPA.

The beer that Pete took to India was brewed, rather appropriately, at the White Shield Brewery by Steve Wellington and there is a brief description of this and the process near the start of the book. Of course, I had to try and work out the recipe by filling in the gaps and here is my approximation, assuming that the brew length was 2 barrels and making guesses to replace the missing information.
1072, IBU 103, EBC 19, 7% ABV
Pale Malt 97.6%
Malt 2.4%
Mash at 66°C, 90 minutes
Northdown Hops to 103 IBU, 60 boil time, 75% by weight
Northdown Late Hops, 10mins, 25% by Weight
Sounds pretty authentic apart from: highish gravity, the crystal malt and the contemporary hop variety. So a modern authentic-ish IPA then!

The whole experiment nearly became scuppered when the first cask of beer exploded in the Canary Islands. I have a feeling that if Pete or Steve had read W H Roberts ' "Scottish Ale Brewer", for instance, they might have reduced the gravity of their IPA a bit, increased the attenuation and maybe, just maybe, avoided the dreaded "exploding cask syndrome". But then, what do I know? Still it does up the drama of the narrative. So, you ask, how did the beer fare? What was it like when it arrived in India? Really— don't be a cheapskate—buy the book and find out.

While we are on the subject of the book, rather than the content, it's a shame that the book doesn't have a proper stitched binding because I am sure that I will re-read and refer to it quite often. Also it is a shame that there are a few typographic errors and some pretty poor proof reading. On a happier note, I like the cover and, I wonder, is that the elephant from the pub just above the title? I rather think it is.

Pete has a theory about the change that IPA underwent on the way to the subcontinent. He points out the similarity with journey which madeira experienced on the way there (maderia was the drink in India before IPA supplanted it). Casks of the wine were transported pretty much the same way as IPA and underwent significant and beneficial change. The Maderian wine producers found that the high temperatures were the thing. When they lost their trade to India (and hence the maturation the wine underwent in the holds of the East Indiamen) the wine producers began to heat their wine up in store, either by gradually moving the casks from the lower to the upper floors of their warehouses or by the artificial heating of the storage vessels.

Oh yes, I think I forgot to say, this is also a very funny book. Laugh out loud funny in places, much to my embarrassment on a couple of occasions.

You see? This book has everything, humour, drama, tears, exotic locations, beer. What more could you want? Go on buy a copy, you won't regret it.

No comments:

Post a Comment