Drinking on the Last Frontier: Historic hullabrew — ‘Mythic’ old beer style sees revival

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. An East India Porter is dark in color with perhaps some garnet highlights. The style was nearly lost to history, but will be available at St. Elias later this year.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. An East India Porter is dark in color with perhaps some garnet highlights. The style was nearly lost to history, but will be available at St. Elias later this year.

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

I’ve been a history buff for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved learning about the deeds of those who came before us and I agree with the quote from the movie “Gladiator,” “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

Since I began researching and writing about beer, I have learned how important brewing has been in the long-running saga of human civilization. Look at almost any historical event in the last 5,000 years and you’ll probably find that beer or wine or both played a part in it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to much of what passes for beer history these days, another quote comes to mind, this one from Henry Ford, “History is more or less bunk.”

Books have been written debunking popular historical beer myths, yet you continue to see the same wrong history repeated again and again. I don’t know whether this is due to laziness or ignorance on the part of writers, but neither cause reflects well on them.

One of the most often repeated of these beer myths deals with the origin of India Pale Ale. The gist of the story is that the dark brown porters, brewed in London from the early days of the 18th Century, couldn’t survive the four- to six-month sea voyage from Britain to its newly acquired imperial gains in India.

So a new beer style had to be created, a pale ale rather than a dark porter, brewed with more alcohol and more hops to act as preservatives. The new style was an immense hit in India and was named India Pale Ale. The end.

A great tale, with only one flaw — it’s not true.

While India Pale Ale was obviously created and refined with the climate of India and the long sea voyage there in mind, this wasn’t necessitated by the inability of porters to survive the journey in a drinkable condition.

In reality, porter continued to be exported to India from Britain for more than a century from at least the 1780s, with the East India Company in the 1850s ordering large quantities of porter from London brewers for issue to its enlisted troops.

The porter arrived in India in fine shape and the troops drank and thoroughly enjoyed it. Dark beers can be very refreshing in hot weather, and stouts are still brewed and enjoyed in hot climates, from the West Indies to Indonesia, even today.

It’s estimated that, in total, more porter than India Pale Ale was exported from Britain to India. One brewery alone shipped 50,000 barrels of porter to India in 1860.

So why is it that India Pale Ales get all the press while these porters (known as East India Porters at the time) get nary a mention? British beer historian Ron Pattison has the answer: “Why have we only ever heard of IPA and not India Porter?

It’s all to do with who drank the beers. IPA was the tipple for officers, officials and bureaucrats. Porter was the drink of the ordinary soldiers. Like so much of British history, it’s all about class. It was the middle and upper classes who wrote about their experiences in India, so as far as anyone knew (or cared), IPA was the beer consumed. No one really cared about the tales of the enlisted men.”

So what were these East India Porters like? Fortunately, we still have the original records from the breweries at which they were produced so we have a pretty good idea. They would have been dark in color, of course, like all porters. Black but possibly with some garnet highlights.

These porters would have had an alcohol content of about 6 percent by volume, slightly stronger than the average beer today (Budweiser has an ABV of 5 percent), but actually slightly lower than the ABV of most beers popular at the time.

Where these beers departed from the norm was in their hopping rates, which were massive. Four-and-a-half pounds of hops were added per barrel of beer, which is a higher hop rate than many modern IPAs!

The heavy usage of hops would help the beer keep on its long journey to India and make it that much more refreshing in the hot climate. The end result was described as a dry, malty beer with substantial “pipe-tobacco” bitterness.

If the above history makes you wish you could sample the beer drunk by the soldiers who fought in Queen Victoria’s name on the Northwest Frontier and were immortalized in the poems and stories of Rudyard Kipling, then you are in luck. Zach Henry of St. Elias Brewing Co. plans to attempt to brew an East India Porter this month, in collaboration with yours truly.

Since it won’t have to go around Africa by sail, you shouldn’t have to wait six months to taste a bit of history, assuming we can pull it off.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell has been an avid craft beer drinker and homebrewer since 1988. Upon retiring from the U.S. Navy in 2004, Howell moved to Alaska, where he blogs about the Alaskan craft brewing scene at alaskanbeer.blogspot.com. In 2007 he created a beer appreciation course titled “The Art and History of Brewing,” which he teaches annually at Kenai Peninsula College. He is the founder of the Kenai Peninsula Brewing and Tasting Society and serves as a media consultant to the Brewers Guild of Alaska.

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