We Are Sailing

How transport by sea has shaped the beer world

In the ancient days of hunting and gathering, beer was a happy accident of leftover dough, or the juice of a sugary crop left out in the sun. The beer was your beer, the yeast was your… well, funky foamy stuff. When you met another groups of humans, your hooch was a welcoming gift, as theirs was in turn. Very quickly, beer passed from being a hyper-local product to one that was a cornerstone of trade between peoples. As we Britons travelled further and further in pursuit of the vast oceans and what lay beyond them, we built ships, and discovered the East, and then the New World, and beer became a truly global product. And from this came stories of how beers made it out into the world, the tales passed between sailors in the cramped hull of a gently rocking ship.

The shipment of beer around the world has played a huge role not only in the spread and evolution of various beer styles, but in the story of empires. The Romans were introduced to the delights of beer by the Gauls in the first century BCE, transported in wooden barrels bound with metal hoops (a Celtic invention). Without viniculture in their conquered regions, Romans took to the beer of natives. But in turn, the Gauls turned to wine and it was only the Celts who remained in Ireland who brought their own style of beer back to the continent.

IPA is perhaps the most famous of all the beers that have sailed on the seven seas. Strong, dry and bitter, it has all the qualities a beer needs to stop it from getting ‘seasick’. The hops in particular aid preservation over the long voyage, as does the high abv. It is a myth, though, that it was created especially to survive the four month voyage to India around the Cape of Good Hope. Its invention is often attributed to the eighteenth century George Hodgson of the Bow brewery east of London, but many others were brewing a style that could last the journey to India, and further, long before him. The 1768 publication Every Man His Own Brewer gives a recipe for two hogsheads of October “malt wine” with six and a half pounds of hops per eight bushels of malt to ensure “a year’s keeping”. And at about 7%, it’s equal to porter, a popular style of the Georgian times.

It is true that Hodgson’s “October wine” made its way to India. His brewery was near the docks of the East Indiamen, a convenient place when the ships’ captains needed a beer to sell alongside the rest of their goods bound for the East. Many other styles were shipped to India, and survived, as the journal of Joseph Banks shows. Writing on board the Endeavour with Captain Cook in the South Pacific, on August 25 1769, he says:

It was this day a twelvemonth since we left England, in consequence of which a peice [sic] of cheshire cheese was taken from a locker where it had been reservd for this occasion and a cask of Porter tappd which provd excellently good, so that we livd like English men and drank the hea[l]ths of our freinds in England.

Hodgson’s October stock ale experienced a happy accident in the hull of the transport ships. The climate, the weather at sea and the pressure inside the ship created a microcosmic atmosphere that rapidly aged the beer. What would have taken two years in a cellar took four months on board. Add to this the secondary fermentation that took place at sea, and Hodgson had a style that was extremely popular and frequently imitated. Powerful parties in the EastIndia trade invited the brewers of Burton upon Trent to try brewing pale ales for India after the Hodgsons’ attempts to strengthen their grip on the foreign beer trade around 1820-1822, which led to a great develop of bitter ales in Britain. By 1824, pale ales for India were being brewed not only in London and Burton, but Edinburgh too.

The assertion English brewers were very eager to break into the Indian market is less credible, however. Exports at the start of the 19th century were less than half a percent of the beer brewed in London. Of his approximately 9,000 barrels a year, Hodgson distributed half to eager Indian customers. His success is probably down to the location of his brewery, close to the East Indiamen ship docks, rather than anything to do with a unique style. That, and he allowed the ships’ captains 18 months credit on the beer they bought from him.


For a while in the 18th century, Samuel Allsopp exported his beer to Russia, in a bilateral agreement that saw him obtain strong wood for his Burton brewery’s barrels. But the Napoleonic wars put paid to trade in the Baltic, and when it was set to recommence, the Russian court took measures to encourage a home-grown brewing industry by slapping expensive duties on imported beer. Allsopp needed a new market, and cast his eye to India. Sitting down with one of the East India Company directors, Campbell Majoribanks, they hatched a plan to introduce a new beer to the Indian market, one that tasted like Hodgson’s, but that was from Burton. The gamble paid off when Allsopp’s beer arrived in perfect condition, and soon many Burton brewers followed suit, flooding what was previously Hodgson’s monopoly market.

After conquering the Indian market, pale ale spread to America, Australia and South-East Asia, as well as becoming popular with men returning home from India. But the advent of refrigeration meant this popularity was short-lived. By the late 19th century cold, crisp lagers were much more popular than before, especially in the tropics where they could be brewed locally all year round. Immigrants to America also brought with them the lager style, and IPA fizzled out until the most recent decades when there has been something of a revival beginning from the few breweries that continued making the authentic style: Deuchars in Edinburgh, Ballantines in New Jersey and Greene King in Suffolk. Ballantines in particular continued with their strong and heavily hopped pale ale, which had a huge part to play when the craft beer movement sprang up in the 1980s and gave IPA its second turn in the spotlight, this time from America outwards.

While there were happy accidents at sea, such as the secondary fermentation of pale ale, there were also unhappy ones. In March 1962, The Lady Gwendolen set off from Dublin carrying a cargo of 642 tons of stout bound for Liverpool. Nearing the end of her voyage and at a speed of ten knots amidst a blanket of fog, The Lady Gwendolen struck the starboard side of a nine-man motor boat called ‘Freshfield’. The impact caused the smaller vessel to list violently to port, before the ship sank to the bottom of the River Mersey (all nine lives were saved by their captain’s timely order of “Abandon ship!”). The captain of the offending ship, Captain Cecil Henry Meredith, was suspended for six months by the Dublin Court and fined L250 for “navigating his vehicle at excessive speed in fog”. The brewers who hired the ship for transport were found to be negligent and liable for the costs of the wreckage. Their name? Arthur Guinness Son & Co Ltd.

Guinness is a great story of how a local beer became a worldwide phenomenon. To begin this tale, we travel back to New Year’s Eve, 1759. Arthur Guinness had just signed a 9,000 year lease for St. James’s Gate brewery, in the city of Dublin. Ten years later, he shipped six-and-a-half barrels of ale to Great Britain. But it wasn’t until 1778 that he first sold the dark porter that we all know. Throughout the bulk of its history, Guinness produced only three variations of a single beer type: porter or single stout, double or extra stout, ‘West Indian’ Porter, which became their modern day Foreign Extra Stout. By the 1820s they were shipping to Portugal, South Carolina and New York in the USA, Barbados and Sierra Leone, Africa.

Nowadays Guinness is brewed under licence by several countries including Nigeria, the Bahamas, Canada, Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, South Korean, Namibia and Indonesia. The Foreign Extra stout style is brewed using hopped wort that is shipped from Dublin and blended with beer brewed locally. Some areas, like Nigeria, add local ingredients like sorghum. Several percentage abv stronger than Guinness Original, Foreign Extra wasn’t made available in the UK until the 1990s, when it was shipped back for sale for the first time.

Even today, transport by sea continues to shape the beer world, as modern craft beer enthusiasts wake up to the idea that freshness really does make a perceptible difference, and that certain styles will make the long journey across the Atlantic better than others. While it has always been seen as a challenge to brewers though, the ocean has also been a key factor in shaping some of today’s most popular styles, and continues to be so.

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