Category: Books

| Apples, Books, Cider, Orchards, The Apple Orchard

Apple Porn

The simple pleasures of tramping round an orchard.

Autumn is a season of two halves. Both are definitely autumn, but one is summer’s older sibling, looking back fondly, while the other is winter’s harbinger. The change comes almost overnight some time late in October, just before the clocks go back. By this time we’ve all been remarking for several weeks that the nights are drawing in and it’s getting a bit chilly, but then, around the 21st – which is, coincidentally (or not) now celebrated as Apple Day – the season finally shifts its weight to the other foot.

Before the change it’s all about crisp blue skies with a chill at the edge, the leaves turning and sweaters coming out of the wardrobe. After, it’s mud, rain, bare branches and those recently beautiful golds and yellows and browns clogging the drains and flying in your face. In short, Autumn Part One is a time to be outside. Part Two is the bit where you rediscover the joys of open fires, home baking and soup.

Every year, it’s a panicked rush to make sure I enjoy Autumn Part One as much as I can. It’s a very busy time of year with festivals, events and trade shows, and from early September to mid-October I’m invariably living out of suitcase most of the time. So when Thatcher’s Cider invited me down to Somerset for a walk in their orchards – with no other agenda than simply catching up with each other – I jumped at the chance.

Thatcher’s has grown at an incredible rate in the last few years. Many locals still remember when it was a small cider farm, but now it’s a national brand. Thatcher’s Gold is pretty much a mainstream cider now, dismissed by purists but superior to the likes of Magner’s, from which it seems to be soaking up a lot business. It doesn’t appeal to me personally, but there are other ciders within the Thatcher’s range that do, particularly the crisp, satisfying oak aged Vintage. The new special vintage blends of apple varieties, such as Tremletts and Falstaff, are also really interesting.

But for me, the most exciting thing Thatchers has done recently is to create a periodic table of the apples they use.

 

I can’t really post a big enough picture of it here to do it justice, though you should hopefully be able to enlarge it.

Apart from it being ridiculously clear and informative, and fascinating if you’re an apple nerd like me, this is what the whole cider industry needs to be looking at. Good cider is made from apples. Obvious I know, but bad cider is made from cheap, imported apple concentrate of indeterminate origin.

Different apples have different characteristics, just like different grapes or hops. Wine became popular in the UK when people began to discover their favourite grape varieties. Craft beer exploded when people started to learn about different hops. It really doesn’t take a genius to see apple varieties as the key building block for a stable, established premium quality cider market.

Martin Thatcher is genuinely fascinated by apples, after having spent his whole life around them. Walking around the massively expanded cider production facility at Myrtle Farm in the village of Sandford, he points to the house where he was born. “I’ve moved house six times in my life,” he says, “And I think they’re all within about 600 yards of each other.”

Between these houses there are over 500 acres of orchards.

Martin is currently experimenting with the effects of terroir. He’s planting stands of the same apple varieties in different types of soil and monitoring the results, and is convinced the fruit will show significant differences.

You can see where this hunch comes from down in the Exhibition Orchard.

Here there are 458 different cider apple varieties. When the Long Ashton Research Station’s Pomology and Plant Breeding programme was disbanded in 1981, Martin’s father John took cuttings from as many different trees as he could and grafted them onto rootstock in his own orchard. It’s just as well he did: the Long Ashton orchards were bulldozed soon afterwards, and a library of old cider varieties could have been lost for ever.

Walking around the Exhibition Orchard in a brief but wonderful interval of clear blue skies, I’m compelled to take photos like some kind of apple ticker. My cider comrade Bill Bradshaw always says that when he was commissioned for a photography project about apples and cider making, he found he couldn’t stop afterwards. I now see why. He’s a professional photographer. I’m a bloke who can just about work out how to point a smartphone in the right direction. But the apple demands to be captured and recorded. It’s the centre of still-life art. The artists who create Pomonas – the visual guides to apple varieties – obsess over capturing their beauty far more than they need to for simple identification purposes.

 

At various points, Martin stops and points to groups of trees bursting with life and fruit, and to others next to them, small and wizened, like the last kids to get picked when a school games lesson splits into two football teams. “These were planted at the same time, in the same soil, and given exactly the same watering, pruning and spraying regime,” says Martin. “Look at the difference.”

 

If you’re a grower, that’s fascinating. But if you’re a lucky tourist in the orchard at harvest time, you have eyes only for those that have decided this particular soil type, this precise elevation and position,  is just right, and have shown their gratitude in the best way they know.

My new book The Apple Orchard is out now. This week’s BBC Radio 4 Food Programme is about the book, and is broadcast for the first time on Sunday 9th October at 12.32pm.

| Apples, Orchards, The Apple Orchard, Writing

Say hello to The Apple Orchard

Part two of my Year of Writing Dangerously…*

Today my seventh book, The Apple Orchard, hits the shelves (hopefully. Please God let it hit at least some shelves.)

When I wrote World’s Best Cider in 2013 with Bill, that book required the short, sharp, snappy sections typical of the guide book: 60 words on a cider here, 500 words on that cider maker there, 1000 words on the history, and so on. My books are normally long-form narrative, and I found much of my best writing was on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because it didn’t really belong in the cider book.

More importantly, the best stuff – or rather, the stuff that interested me the most at any rate – wasn’t about cider at all, but about apples, the people who grow them, the places they’re grown, and especially the history and mythology around them. Once we finished researching the cider book, I found myself missing orchards, and desperate to find a way to spend more time in them.

 

So I decided to write about apples themselves. Not just cider apples, but eating apples and dessert apples too.

 

I wanted to trace the history of what we believe to be a quintessentially English fruit through both our real and imagined past. Because I quickly  realised that the apple is the the most symbolically laden of any fruit – indeed of any food. Across many different mythologies and religions, in popular culture and phraseology, the apple dominates. And it does so out of all proportion to its actual importance to our diet. Sure, we eat a lot of apples, but if symbolic importance was proportionate to dietary importance, the Beatles would have released their records on the Wheat label, and New York would be affectionately known as The Big Loaf.

 

I lost the whole summer of 2014 to the seemingly simple question of whether the Forbidden Fruit in the Bible was an apple or not. Genesis never specifies what the fruit was, but the Western World has believed it to be an apple since the Middle Ages.

Pieter Paul Rubens’ depiction of Eden and the Forbidden Fruit

And yet when Michelangelo painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel, he clearly depicted it as a fig.

Michelangelo’s Forbidden… er, Fig

This could have been a whole book in itself – I read many on the subject. And they brought me, via the Middle East, South America, The Himalayas, the North Pole, the Happy Isles and the Moon, back round to the birth of modern horticulture.

 

I decided to follow the apple through the course of a year. It has its big showtimes at blossom in May and harvest in October, but as with anything in horticulture and agriculture, apple growing is a year-round activity.

 

I learned how to graft and prune fruit trees. I picked apples in an orchard on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, beneath which King Arthur sleeps, immortal thanks to the magical apples of Avalon.

 

I also discovered, on my very first orchard visit with Bill, that I’ve developed a very serious allergy to eating apples. Thankfully whatever is causing the problem is left behind in the solid, or ‘pomace,’ when apples are pressed, because I can drink cider, and also, happily I discovered I can drink fresh apple juice. There are 4000 named varieties of apple cultivated in Britain, and a tasting of single variety juices revealed to me the astonishing array of flavours they possess.

 

The book ranges from myth to genetic modification, from wassail to the economics of the modern apple growing industry through meditations on soil. It’s a personal journey though the subject rather than an exhaustive history, but that’s what my new editor at Penguin felt the book needed to be. We cut a lot of stuff out about mythology and history and how this supposedly English fruit was originally born in Kazakhstan, because the book would have been rambling and unfocused and 500 pages long if we’d left it in. But my journey through orchards still gives chance to touch on all these points.

 

I wrote some more about all this stuff in a piece for the Daily Telegraph’s weekend section last week. I’m going to be doing as many events as I can to promote the book though the autumn – another excuse to get back into orchards and near trees. (Now, I have a physical response to entering an orchard. I can feel my heart rate slow, my breathing deepen, my mind settle.)

I’m delighted to be recording an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme about the book next week, which is provisionally slated for broadcast on Sunday 9th October. (More details to follow when confirmed.) And I’m doubly delighted that BBC Radio 4 have also picked up The Apple Orchard as Book of the Week, to be read out every morning w/c 5th December.

I’m nervous about this, my first book that has no link at all to beer or pubs (although cider is made and consumed in the later chapters). I hope that even if you’ve never really thought that much about apples – as I hadn’t until I first entered an orchard with a notebook in my hand – you’ll find this fascinating and diverting. The apple is a complicated, mysterious treasure hiding in plain sight and trying to look boring, and its history shines a different light on the history of humanity, and what we believe in.

 

The photos in this blog were taken by me primarily as aides memoire while I was writing. the book is not illustrated.
* The first of the three books I very stupidly signed up to write simultaneously was The Pub: A Cultural Institution, which was published in mid-August 2016. The third and final book is my journey through the nature of beer – an exploration of hops, barley, yeast and water. I submitted a complete first draft of this to my publisher two weeks ago. This is the one through Unbound, which uses rewards-based crowdfunding to cover publication costs before publishing books in the usual manner. The book is due out in May/June 2017, but subscribers will get their copes as soon as it’s back from the printers, which will probably be a couple of months earlier. Even though the book is fully funded, if you want to get a copy of it before publication as well as other rewards, you can still subscribe here.

| Books, Pubs, The Pub: A Cultural Institution

The Pub: A Cultural Institution

The first of three new books from me is out now. Sort of.

My book on pubs is officially released on 18 August, but it’s already been spotted in Foyles and Blackwells.

I was asked to do this book by the publisher – it was a scenario where they came up with the idea and had a shortlist of authors in mind for it. If I’d said no, they would have asked someone else. But I couldn’t say no.

We all know the format of this kind of ‘coffee table’ book. It looks beautiful. It’s not the kind of book you read from cover to cover. You pick it up and flip through it, lingering over the pictures. In some, the text is just there to put gaps between the pictures.

Like my and Bill’s book on cider, I wanted to make this book more than that. It had to be beautiful, it had to be a book you want to buy as a present for anyone who loves pubs. But I also wanted the text to mean something, for it also to be a book you did want to read cover to cover.

So it’s not a book that reviews pubs by the range of beers they have, what the food is like or whether they allow dogs. The internet is a far better place for that. The centre of this book for me are the fifty double page spread reviews of my favourite pubs.

It’s seventy years ago this year since George Orwell wrote The Moon Under Water and said that the single thing that defines a great pub is its atmosphere. So I set myself the task of trying to review pubs by their atmosphere. It’s a difficult task, because atmosphere is intangible, which is why few pub reviewers talk about what remains the single most important criterion by which we judge pubs.

 

I certainly didn’t succeed in reviewing every pub by its atmosphere – some of the reviews lapse into talking about history, location or beer range, although all these factors do contribute to atmosphere. But where I have succeeded, the reviews are short essays on what makes pubs pubs, little stories that pick up on and celebrate the legendary landlord, the role in the community, the eccentricities and legends that separate great pubs from other retail outlets.

As well as these top fifty, there are shorter listings of a further 250 pubs all across the UK, plus sections on pub history and pub culture. It’s pub porn, basically. Researching the book last year was an absolute delight. Sometimes we spent all day driving to a particular pub that had been recommended, and we’d get there and it would be worth every minute of the journey. It was brilliant going to places like Liverpool, having tweeted that I’d be there, and finding a posse of people waiting for me so they could show me their favourite haunts. Five days with a list of recommendations across Somerset, Devon and Cornwall was utterly magical, and the comedown at the end, when we visited  pub that was merely good as opposed to legendary, was startling.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom talked about pubs at the moment, with good reason. For the last decade pubs have been put through the wringer. This book doesn’t address that – it seeks to remind the reader why pubs matter so much in the first place.

The book is available for pre-order on Amazon and I imagine they’ll be shipping in the next couple off days. If you’re at the Great British Beer Festival today, I’m signing copies – unofficially – at the CAMRA bookstall at 3pm and 6pm.

| Beer, Books, Hops & Glory, IPA

Long Read: Burton IPA’s arrival in India.

The reason I’m not blogging at the moment is that I’m deep into writing up my next beer book, What Are You Drinking? I’m hoping to finish this draft in the next two weeks, and it’ll be published spring next year. 


I’m going through the four key raw materials of beer and telling their stories, and I’m currently up to water. It’s the toughest one to do. Today, after writing about Dublin and Bohemia, I’m writing about the special water that made Burton on Trent the ale brewing capital of the world, and I’ve gone back into my first draft of Hops and Glory for help. That first draft was 50 per cent longer than the book that was eventually published. I remember my editor reading it and saying, “Look, I’m enjoying it OK? But I’m expecting to read about a sea voyage to India and all I’m saying is I’m on page 156 and I’m still on a canal boat outside Burton.” My first attempt at editing it resulted in it being 5000 longer. 


We had to be brutal. A lot of the granular history of Burton and IPA got cut, whole chapters summarised into a few lines each. I’ve sometimes regretted this because while many people tell me they enjoy the book, it doesn’t get mentioned in the canon of historical research on IPA very often. It was aimed at a general audience rather than a beer geek or brewer, and some of the stuff serious beer heads might find fascinating really slowed the pace down for everyone else.


So this morning, I’ve dug out the first draft hoping to find a previously unpublished treatise on the properties of Burton water and its suitability for brewing strong pale ale. It’s not quite there, and I’ve misremembered what a lot of the research actually told me. But I did find this, and I found it fascinating. If you’re a hardcore IPA nut, you might find it interesting too. Long-read blog posts seem to be in fashion at the moment, and this makes up for me not writing anything else here, and there’s no other way I can use it, so why not? If you don’t fancy spending 20 minutes reading detailed beer history, you can leave now and I’ll come back to proper blogging as soon as I can.


The following passage was cut down to about half this length in the book, and loses many of the primary quotes, which get summarised  But in full, it tells the story of what happened when Burton IPA first arrived in India. In writing the book, I didn’t just want to get an accurate handle on what the beer was really like; I wanted to know why. What made it work in India? Why did it take off? Why did the British in India drink it? How was it served? What did they think of it?


So here we are. To set the scene: The London brewer Hodgson’s owns the beer market in India. He has good links with the East India Company’s sea captains and they make a lot of money by transporting and selling his beers. But Hodgson gets greedy and tries to hike prices, flooding the market with cheap beer whenever a competitor appears, then whacking them up again when the competitor backs off. Campbell Marjoribanks of the East India Company visits Samuel Allsopp in Burton and suggests that he might like a crack at the Indian market. He gives Allsopp a sample of Hodgson’s beer and Allsopp brews a version of it in Burton, unaware that the difference in brewing water compared to London (see?) will make it a dramatically different beer. But will its superior quality be enough to counter Hodgson’s sharp marketing practices? He places his first brew on two ships sailing from Liverpool: the Bencoolen and the Seaforth. They’re also carrying some of Hodgson’s beer. Six months later, they arrive at the dock in Calcutta…

Given the Bencoolen factory’s historicreputation as a disease-blown, drink-sodden, last chance saloon that convicts rather hang than be posted to, and its censure by ‘John Company’ over its
enthusiasm for Burton ale, it’s perhaps fitting that Samuel Allsopp’s first consignment
of strong beer for India went on a ship of the same name.  But much had changed in the century since the
Bencoolen public table’s legendary binge.
Affairs in the east were more organised, more civilised now.  Beer was a
respectable drink, a sign of good standing, drunk by people who were creating a
New England that was different from home in only a few key respects: it was
much hotter, a bit more dangerous, and they were able to live like lords rather
than clerks.
But an exotic world still lay outside the
window.  Fanny Parkes, arriving only a
few months earlier, painted a vivid picture of the sight that would have
greeted the Bencoolen as she made her
final passage up the Hugli River:
Passing through the different vessels that crowd the Hoogly
off Calcutta gave me great pleasure; the fine merchant-ships, the gay,
well-trimmed American vessels, the grotesque forms of the Arab ships, the
Chinese vessels with an eye on each side the bows to enable the vessel to see
her way across the deep waters, the native vessels in all their fanciful and
picturesque forms, the pleasure-boats of private gentlemen, the beautiful
private residences in Chowringhee, the Government-house, the crowds of people
and vehicles of all descriptions, both European and Asiatic, form a scene of
beauty of which I know not the equal.
A further key difference is that here,
beer was still a luxury rather than the centuries-old staple it was back
home.  The market Hodgson’s dominated was
not huge.  John Bell, who compiled trade
figures for the Bengal authorities, estimated the average annual consumption of
beer at almost seven thousand hogsheads, a quarter of which went to Madras, the
rest to Bengal.  ‘There is reason to
suppose that the demand would increase if the price was steady’, he wrote, ‘but
while it fluctuates from six to fifteen rupees a dozen it is not likely that
the consumption will be increased’.  On
the contrary, ‘thousands would be compelled to give it up and take to drinking
French clarets, which are and have been selling at from three to eighteen
rupees a dozen’.  French clarets?  Less than a decade after Waterloo?  No, we couldn’t have that.  The supply of affordable beer had to be
stabilised.
The fact that pale ale occupied a very
similar price range to French claret speaks volumes about the quality of the
beer and the demand for it in this climate.
That quality was strictly upheld by the import agents.  Some historians wax dramatically about how
rejected beer was poured away into the harbour.
This did sometimes happen – WH Roberts heard from a correspondent in
1845 of 80 hogsheads being poured away – but it would have had to have been
incredibly bad beer to warrant such measures.
The Calcutta Gazette carried
plenty of ads such as the one in April 1809 for ‘62 hogsheads of REJECTED BEER,
bearing different Marks, imported on the Honourable Company’s ship General
Stuart.’  Even broached casks – with beer
that could only have been stale – were sold for anything they could get: ‘8
full and one ullaged Hogsheads of Damaged Beer imported on the Honourable
Company ship Tottenham’ were sold by Captain Hughes once permission had been
given by the customs collectors.
Because even beer that couldn’t pass
muster had its uses.  It might have
molasses pitched in, the sugar giving it an additional fermentation, then be
watered down and mixed with spices to disguise the rank taste.  If it was too bad even for that, it could be
used to form the base of ketchup: one of the first recipes for ‘catsup’ was
devised by Hannah Glasse in 1747 ‘for the Captains of ships’.  It could keep for up to twenty years, and
consisted of stale beer, anchovies, mace, cloves, pepper, ginger and
mushrooms.
But there was to be no Samuel Allsopp’s
ketchup after the tasters had done their work.
The Burton pale ale was approved.
The cargo went to the city’s auction houses, and the Calcutta Gazette filled up with beer
ads.
Hodgson was clearly at the
swamp-the-market phase in his protectionist cycle.  He must have got wind of Allsopp’s intentions,
because eleven and a half thousand hogsheads of beer were imported in the
1822-23 season, double the amount of year before, four times the amount the
year before that, and double anything that would be achieved for the rest of
the decade.  The ads in the paper became
increasingly lyrical in their praise.  In
April the front page boasted ‘prime picked’ Hodgson’s pale ale, which
‘surpasses in superiority of quality, any of the former season’s… as fine
Malt Liquor as ever was drunk’.
The price of ale plummeted.  Hodgson’s beer was selling for twenty-five
rupees per hogshead – the price of Allsopp’s ale was set at twenty.  It was a good start, but it wasn’t great –
twenty rupees a hogshead when in some years you could get fifteen for a dozen
quart bottles was not the basis for a profitable business.  John Bell wasn’t happy:
The enhanced scale of importation which took place in
1822-23 was both unwise, and attended with great loss to those immediately
concerned with the trial of monopolizing the Indian market; and the sorrowful
winding up of that speculation, by forced sales of unsound beer… evinced a
want of proper discrimination on the part of those whose time would have been
more properly and advantageously employed in the immediate exercise of their calling.
Allsopp’s second consignment fared
better, helped by a fortunate bit of circumstance.  When the second ship, the Seaforth, came in, Tulloh & Co as
usual offered ‘the finest stock of HODGSON’S ripe PALE ALE to be met with in
India’, but further down the page sat the following notice:
REJECTED BEER
To be sold by Public Auction, by Messrs Taylor & Co, on
the CUSTOM HOUSE WHARF, by permission of the Collector of Sea Customs, at
eleven o’ Clock precisely, on Saturday next, the 28th Instant, 48
HOGSHEADS of Hodgson’s BEER, and 17 empty HOGSHEADS, landed from the ship
Timandra, and 30 hogsheads of Hodgson’s BEER, landed from the ship Seaforth.
A good portion of Hodgson’s beer had
spoiled.  Allsopp’s beer, on the same
ship, had not.  This time, it fetched
forty rupees at auction.
With a journey of up to six months each
way, brewers in England had to wait for up to a year to learn how their
business had gone.  But slowly, the
letters began to arrive back in Burton.
Mr Gisborne, a customer of the first order, wrote to Allsopp in July
1823 asking if the trade in Burton ale could be expanded, recommending that he
be given the authority to bottle the ale for retail on arrival.  In November 1824, Mr J C Bailton wrote from
Calcutta:
I have watched the whole progress of your ale… With
reference to the loss you have sustained in your first shipments, you must have
been prepared for that, had you known
that market as well as I do; here almost everything is name, and
Hodgson’s has so long stood without a rival, that it was a matter of
astonishment how your ale could have stood in competition; but that it did is a
fact, and I myself was present when a butt of yours fetched 136 rupees, and a
butt of Hodgson’s only 80 rupees at public sale.
Captain Chapman wrote that the ale had
turned out well, that a bigger shipment should be sent the following year, and
that even then it might be scarce.  In
the same month, Messrs Gordon & Co. wrote:
After bottling off a portion, which was approved by our
friends, the demand for this article has since been very great, and we now have
orders to some extent for this ale.  We
would, therefore, strenuously recommend Mr Allsopp to make further consignments
of it; and we have every reason to believe he will have a fair competition with
Messrs Hodgson & Co.
The trickle of orders coming in via
agents in Liverpool and London turned into a steady stream.  In 1824 Allsopp sent out two thousand
barrels, and in October 1825, Captain Probyn wrote that large numbers of his
passengers preferred Allsopp’s to Hodgson’s ale, and that ‘many who had been
long in India, declared it to be preferable to any they had ever tasted in the
East’.
In the Calcutta Weekly Price Current of November 1826, the following entry
occurs:
Rupees
ALE –      Hodgson, per
Hogshead    170
                 Allsopp’s
Burton    ”       170
No other beer is quoted.
In the Calcutta Gazette, the auction houses were advertising ‘a fresh
importation of Allsopp’s Highly Admired Pale Burton Ale’.  Messrs Tulloh & Co, for so long in the
grip of Hodgson, (it was they who would go on to write the highly critical Circular on the Beer Trade of India) had
much pleasure in announcing to the public that they had available a small batch
of ‘ALLSOPP’S FAMOUS PALE ALE… Great attention was bestowed on the brewing of
this batch, and is it has come out in the short period of 105 days from
Liverpool, there is every reason to expect it will turn out as almost all
Allsopp’s Shipments have done, in excellent order’.  They still sold Hodgson’s beer of course, but
now there was a worthy rival the copy for Hodgson’s seemed a little less effusive: ‘it will be carefully examined by Messrs
Watson & Co and none passed but such as is pronounced to be decidedly of
the very best quality’, they reassured us, and while it was still ‘the finest
beer that comes to the Indian market’, this was only ‘as far as the general
taste goes’.  As Tizard put it, ‘the
spell had been broken’.  In four seasons,
Allsopp had shattered Hodgson’s grip on the market.
In the face of seemingly insurmountable
odds, there was something about Allsopp’s beer that was powerful enough to
supplant the established, dominant market leader who seemingly held all the
cards.  Of course some of this success
was due to the vision and determination of Allsopp himself, a man who ‘saw no difficulties
which time, perseverance, resolution, consistency, and steady, unswerving
honour could not overcome’. But there was more to it than that.  What Campbell Marjoribanks couldn’t have
realised when he decided to court Allsopp is that he was approaching a brewer
who possessed a very special ingredient.
The Trent Valley is a broad trough carved
out of ancient rock, covered with a layer of sand and gravel anywhere up to
sixty feet deep.  Rain water trickles
through these beds for tens of thousands of years, and as a result, by the time
it emerges from wells and springs it contains a unique composition of minerals
that makes it not only superior to soft, southern water from London, but the
best water for ale brewing found anywhere in the world.  It has a higher sulphate content than any
other major brewing centre, giving a dry, bitter flavour to beer.  Sulphate means brewers can add large amounts
of hops to the beer without it becoming too astringently bitter.  Brewing scientists also claim that water for
ale should be high in calcium – Burton has the highest calcium content of any
major brewing region.  It should be high
in magnesium  and low in sodium and
bicarbonate – once more, Burton water is.
The strong, hoppy beer devised by Hodgson was given a whole new
dimension when brewed in Burton.  It was
a phenomenal stroke of good fortune, bringing a style of beer that suited the
Indian climate to a place that would never have had good reason to brew it, but
was, in the words of one later Bass historian, ‘The one spot in the world where
the well-water is so obviously intended by Nature for kindly union with those
fruits of the earth, to give beer incomparable’.
In 1828 a senior partner at George’s, a
porter brewery in Bristol that had decided to experiement with pale ale,
suggested that Hodgson’s beer simply didn’t match up to the new brews from
Burton.  Writing to Willis & Earle in
Calcutta, he said of Hodgson’s ale, ‘We neither like its thick and muddy appearance
or rank bitter flavour’.  Two years later,
when George’s joined the golden beer rush to Calcutta, the same partner
explained, ‘We made a slight alteration to the Ale by brewing it rather of a
paler colour and more hop’d to make it as similar as possible to some samples
of Allsopp’s ale’.
Even if Hodgson’s recipe was recreated
exactly in Burton, with the only difference being Burton instead of London
water, the Burton version would have been superior in quality and character
when it reached India.  And Hodgson was
simply his own worst enemy.  Having
already pissed off the East India Company to such an extent that one of its
directors went out of his way to find someone capable of putting up a fight,
Hodgson, surely expecting to rout Allsopp from the market, changed his terms of
business in 1824 and shut out the very people he relied on to get his beer to
India. According to the Circular on the
Beer Trade in India,
the captains and officers of the East Indiamen had
been Hodgson’s best customers thanks largely to the generous credit terms he
extended to them.  Hodgson’s ale was ‘one
of the principal articles in their investments’ until, in 1824, he not only
raised his prices to them, but refused now to sell on any terms except for hard
cash:
Hodgson & Co., confident of the power they had over the
market, sent the Beer out for sale on their own account; thus they, in a short
time, became Brewers. Shippers, Merchants, and even retailers.  These proceedings naturally and justly
excited hostile feelings in those engaged in the Indian Trade at home; while
the public here, seeing at last the complete control which Hodgson endeavoured
to maintain over the market, turned their faces against him, and gave
encouragement to other Brewers who fortunately sent out excellent beer.
That ‘encouragement’ took many
forms.  Happy customers were eager to
advise Allsopp not just on how to brew his beer, but when the best time was to
send it.  Then as now, one of the things
that mattered most was that the beer was served cool, which wasn’t easy when
the temperature rarely dipped below thirty degrees C and refrigeration wasn’t
going to appear for another fifty years.
Happily, one of India’s main manufactures provided the answer.  In 1828, when young Henry Allsopp was working
for Gladstone & Co, a Liverpool shipping agent, he received a letter for a
Mr Lyon in Calcutta:
I would advise your father to ship his Beer
in the month of November or latter end of October, to arrive here in March or
April; it is then our hottest season, and the quantity of Beer then consumed is
tremendous.  Your Beer is certainly a
most delightful beverage during the hot season; it is always cooled with
saltpetre before it is drank; we can make it by this article as cold as ice.
‘F.E.W.’ reminisced in a newspaper
article years later that ‘beer was always deliciously cooled with saltpetre,
when everything else was lukewarm; a point very much in its favour’.
A bottle or flask of ale would be
immersed in a solution of saltpetre.
Water was added, and as it mixed with the saltpetre it would cool within
a few minutes.  It was an effective
method but fiddly and expensive, especially given that a more lucrative use of
saltpetre was in the manufacture of gunpowder, which the Company still needed
even more than cold beer.
Gradually, an even more ingenious cooling
method came into use.  Bottles were hung
outdoors, inside a cage or cradle, and covered with a wet cloth, the edges of
which sat in a trough of water at the bottom of the cage.  The hot wind evaporated the water, and the
evaporation cooled the water.  The cloths
sucked up more water, creating a continuous cooling process.
Michael Bass soon noticed what was
happening over at Allsopp’s.  He’d
already experimented with pale malts a few years previously, and now, shut out
of the Baltic trade by Benjamin Wilson twenty years before, it was time for his
revenge.  Forced to turn back to the
domestic market after the Baltic fiasco, Bass had built far better trading
links with important cities such as Liverpool, London and Manchester.  Now, his network was more developed than
Allsopp’s, and he knew the canals better.
From 1823 there was a sharp increase in Bass sales to London
agents.  By 1828 41 per cent of Bass’
output was going to London and Liverpool, much of it in large consignments for
export.  In 1828 the Calcutta Gazette was advertising ‘Hodgson’s Allsopp’s and Basse’s
Beer in wood, and in bottle, of different ages, some all perfection, others
approaching it’, and most auction houses continued to promote all three brands
over the next few years.  In 1832 Bass
exported 5193 barrels to Calcutta – slightly more than Hodgson and Allsopp’s
combined shipments.  Although Michel Bass
didn’t live to see it (he died in 1827, leaving the brewery to his son, Michael
Thomas) his victory over Allsopp’s was decisive.  The two would remain rivals for another
century, each far bigger than any other Burton brewer, but Allsopp would never
again quite challenge Bass’ supremacy.
In 1835 John Bell noted that the beer
trade had fallen off again, and that ‘the most remarkable deficiency is in
supplies from Hodgson; on the other hand, Bass and Allsopp have shipped more
extensively.’  A year later, he could
barely keep the triumph felt by Bengal’s populace from his remarks:
Beer is an article subject to the vicissitude of caprice
more than any other article perhaps imported into Calcutta.  A very few years ago Hodgson stood alone in
the market, and the idea of rivalry was never entertained.  Thus he was enabled to reach his own terms –
cash – without any guarantee as to quality; and success, for some time, gained
for him a name and wealth.
People in England and India, at length began to discover,
that the magic spell might be broken by the strong hand of competition; and
although some of those who first had temerity enough to enter the field against
so formidable an antagonist, supported as he was by the strongest prejudice,
suffered severely, Hodgson was at length defeated, and the market is now
supplied by a variety of brewers.
Tizard was happy to advise this ‘variety
of brewers’ on how to prosper in India:
The first point of consideration is Quality… The ale
adapted for this market should be a clear-light-bitter-pale
ale of a moderate strength, and by no means what is termed in Calcutta heady;
it should be shipped in hogsheads which, we need scarcely observe, should be
most carefully coopered… Another point is, that by frequent consignments, you
acquire a name, which, as you may be
aware, is everything in India.
While it would be a long time before the
word was used freely in commerce, in order to succeed, these beers had to be
strong brands.  This was Hodgson’s legacy: his name became
synonymous with quality.  To beat him,
you had to beat him not only on quality, but also on sheer brand
awareness.  It’s no coincidence that,
fifty years after establishing itself in India, Bass would become the UK’s
first registered trade mark.
As well as the triumvirate of Bass,
Allsopp, and to an increasingly lesser extent, Hodgson, by 1833 brewers such as
Ind and Smith, Worthington, Charrington and Barclay Perkins of London and
Tennent of Glasgow were sending pale ale to India.  By 1837 Bell notes the arrival of beer from
the United States and ‘Cape Beer’, but these were to make up a tiny amount of
the beer drunk in India – as Tizard states, it was ‘clear that England must
furnish the supply’.
Imports doubled through the 1830s.  The competition and regularity of supply
stabilised prices, allowing the taste for beer to spread throughout
Anglo-Indian society, right through to ‘the poorer classes of British
inhabitants, which having once acquired, they will continue to indulge as long
as prices remain moderate’.  Allsopp’s
‘Burton India Ale’ lost out to Bass in sales, but was still considered by many,
including Tizard, to be ‘the most salable’, thanks mainly to its ‘superior
lightness and brilliancy’.  Soon,
according to Bell, ‘no less than twenty brewers now send out Beer from England,
where one occupied the field a very few years ago’.
Beer now quickly supplanted other drinks.  Sales of Madeira collapsed from 85204 rupees
in 1829-30 to 21632 rupees in 1833-34, with Bell observing that ‘this
once-favoured wine stands… as an example of the effects produced on trade by
the caprice of fashion… the sudden distaste for Madeira would almost lead us
to believe that some magic influence had been at work’.  The consumption of spirits was ‘certainly not
so great as formerly’, port was ‘limited’ and other drinks such as champagne
and hock had ‘never been very great’.  As
for the over-supply of Claret, ‘we hope that the French have at last seen the
folly of driving such a ruinous trade’.
As Bushnan remarked in
1853, thanks to the many fine qualities of Samuel Allsopp:
Since the year 1824 no Englishman has been
reduced to the sad necessity of drinking French claret for the want of a
draught of good, sound, wholesome, and refreshing English Burton beer.

| Pubs, Shakespeare’s Local, Southwark, The George Inn, The Tabard

Shakespeare’s Real Local?

A tantalising new scrap of evidence about the bard’s drinking habits has emerged.

The Tabard Inn, Borough High Street

When I wrote Shakespeare’s Local I upset some readers because I failed to prove the contention in the title of the book – that William Shakespeare drank in the George Inn in Borough High Street.

At a time when most people were illiterate, very little got written down. Information about Shakespeare’s life is so scant there’s not even really any evidence of where he lived when he was in London, let alone where he enjoyed a pint. When I wrote the book, there was not one single mention of Shakespeare ever having been recorded as being in any pub, ever.

And yet we know he did live in London for many years, even if we don’t know exactly where. And we know that unless he was a very unusual man for his time, if he lived in London he went to the pub in London. Because everyone did. Beer was safer to drink than water, and you had to go to the pub and get it. And if you wanted to sit back and relax with friends, there was nowhere else for most people to do that other than the pub.

In the absence of evidence, you can only make informed guesses – just because there’s no proof of something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, so you have to construct the most likely scenario based on the soundest possible assumptions.

My argument in the book was that Shakespeare definitely worked in Southwark, where the Globe Theatre was, so it’s likely he lived close by – most historians believe he did. If he lived and worked in Southwark, he would have visited Southwark’s pubs. We know he was aware of the White Hart pub on Borough High Street, because he set a scene in one of his plays there. The White Hart stood next to the George, so he must have been aware of the George too. The George and its immediate neighbours were the most famous pubs in London at the time, which we know thanks to the meticulous work of John Stow, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. It’s thought Shakespeare lived in the area for ten years. If he was going to pubs most days, it’s far more likely that he did drink in the George at least occasionally than that he didn’t.

On this, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and the 452nd anniversary of his birth) I would love to be able to announce that new evidence has come to light that Shakespeare really did drink in the George. But in all my research on the place, it never quite works out like that.

I was indebted to an American academic called Martha Carlin when I was writing my book. She’s done more research on medieval Southwark than anyone else, and she recently contacted me to tell me that she’s found the first and so far only record of someone claiming to see Shakespeare in a specific pub.

Of course, it’s not the George. It’s the George’s next door neighbour. It always bloody is.

The White Hart stood to the left of the George on Borough High Street. Not only did Shakespeare write about it, Dickens used it as the location of a crucial scene in the Pickwick Papers. To the right of the George stood the Tabard. This was the inn which Chaucer used as the starting point for the Canterbury Tales. At the time he wrote those stories, he could have picked any of several inns lining Borough High Street. He could have chosen the George. Instead he chose its next door neighbour, immortalising the Tabard for ever as the birthplace of English literature.

The three greatest names in English letters, then, each of them associated strongly with the old inns of Borough High Street, each of them making their strongest link with the inns either side of the George.

Now, Martha writes, the words of an anonymous actuary writing in 1643 have been unearthed, describing “Some notes for my Perambulation in and round ye Citye of London for six miles and Remnants of divers worthie things and men”.

The author announces that his survey is intended “only to notice those places and things that have been passed by or littled [sic] mentiond [sic] by those greate Antiquaries that have written of this noble Citye and ye which places are fast ruining as the Tabard Inne and ye many houses of Priesthood old Monuments Halls Palaces and Houses of its greate Citizens and Lords and may be useful to searchers of Antiquitye in time to come.”

The Tabard Inn, like many of London’s great landmarks, is by now falling into ruin – so we learn that the lamenting the passing of great pubs is nothing new.When he gets to the Tabard, our anonymous correspondent writes, “Ye Tabard I find to have been ye resort Mastere Will Shakspear Sir Sander Duncombe Lawrence Fletcher Richard Burbage Ben Jonson and ye rest of their roystering associates in King Jameses time as in ye lange room they have cut their names on ye Pannels.”

So graffiting the pub was nothing new either!
Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s vandalism of the Tabard was lost when the inn burnt down along with the George and the White Hart, in the great fire of Southwark in 1676. All three were rebuilt the following year. The George is the only one that has survived until today.
So the Tabard – already already famous as Chaucer’s Local – now has a far better claim to be Shakespeare’s Local than its neighbour.
But thanks to this find, we now know that Shakespeare really did go to the pub in Borough High Street. Did he and his fellow ‘roysterers’ ever do a crawl of the great inns? Did he graffiti the George as well as the Tabard? Most likely, we’ll never know. The idea of the group of players carving their names into the panels suggests, to me at any rate, that they were regular visitors who wanted to leave their mark. It makes perfect sense that Shakespeare would choose the Tabard because of its associations with Chaucer, placing himself in a great literary tradition. But did he only ever go to the Tabard, and never to the pub next door? I find that hard to believe.
The point is, the George is the only one of those great inns to have survived the coming of the railways. The Tabard, as well as the White Hart, fell into ruin because they were up for sale for years and no one wanted to buy them. By the time the Tabard was finally demolished, it looked like this:
The Tabard, 1870s
The George was the only one of the great inns to escape this fate, the only one that’s still there to write about and to visit. The main reason it did so was thanks to an extraordinary landlady who used every means at her disposal to keep it going as the inns either side were being pulled down – including telling outrageous lies and exaggerations about its associations with Dickens and Shakespeare to attract tourists and build fascination with this last survivor.
Let’s just say I make no apologies for having sympathy with her aim.