I didn’t see much of Kolkata – not its present day incarnation, anyway. But during my brief time in the city, I found something much more thrilling. And I believe there may be as many as a dozen people in the world who will agree with me when I tell you what it is.
In my previous books, where I’ve dug into history I’ve relied on the same secondary sources as most other writers. Maybe I’ve read around the subject a little more than most beer writers do, trying to put beer into its proper context, but I’m no historian, and I didn’t push back any boundaries of knowledge. For that, I always direct people to Martin Cornell’s book, which had the misfortune to be released two months after my first. Martin made a point of not including anything he couldn’t check from an original source. And while this means maybe some things that were probably true were not included because they weren’t definitely true, his book remains the most factually accurate history of beer there is.
Inspired partly by Martin, and encouraged by the fact that I had a tight niche compared to the whole history of beer, I though a bit of original research using primary sources would not only be fitting , but fun. And I’m hooked – it’s like being a time-travelling detective.
I spent my last day in Kolkata in the Indian National Library, persuading them to dig out their archived, worm-eaten copies of the Calcutta Gazette, the paper of record during the days of the East India Company’s rule of Bengal. Advertising today tells you the story of a society – what its obsessions and values are – and it’s no different in history. The ads in the Gazette from the 1780s to the 1840s tell the story of the evolution of India Pale Ale in a way it has never been told before. Added to what I’ve already found in the archives of the Museum of Brewing in Burton, and in the archives of the East India Company, I’ve managed to pull together a complete rewrite of the history of this wonderful beer style. The gist of the legend is correct, but some very important details of it are wrong – based on entirely reasonable suppositions, but different when you have all the facts.
Unfortunately, my book is now not due for release until early 2009 (publishing schedules being a mystery to any writer who is not the author of a celebrity kiss and tell), so I can’t reveal the juicy details right now.
But the man thing that stays with me is nothing to do with beer itself, and may impart some of the thrill I felt – as I was looking for the notice of auctions for the ale and porter that had arrived in 1790, I noticed the front page headline of the paper I was holding. It talked about updating the Gazette’s readers on “The Commotions in France.” No, not an early tour by Lloyd Cole’s criminally underrated band. I was holding the newspaper that was informing the British in India of the unfolding French Revolution.
I think that was the point where I fell in love with primary historical research.