History of Bow Brewery

The East End of London has been home to many major breweries over the years and even to a couple of distinctive types of beers. In the 19th century, the Mann, Crosman and Paulin’s brewery in Whitechapel created a beer that is held to be the daddy of the modern brown ales that are still drunk today.

In Bow, a brewer called George Hodgson and his son created India Pale Ale at the Bow Brewery, although this may have been by accident rather than by design.

Bow Brewery and the Birth of India Pale Ale

Hodgson bought the brewery in Bow in 1752. He specialised in making a beer called porter, which he sold primarily to local pubs and residents. Porter was a dark and heavy bitter type of beer. It was the favourite drink of many of the working men in the East End at the time. The Bow Brewery was a relatively small business at this point. It could not generally compete with the larger breweries in the area, however it had one advantage. It sold its beer to the East India Company’s captains. They shipped the beer abroad to sell to merchants who would then sell it on to locals and expat Englishmen.

The Bow Brewery was close to the East India Company’s docks and Hodgson allowed the company’s men up to eighteen months of credit before they had to pay their bills. This made his brewery a lot more attractive to them than larger ones in the area who expected faster payment and took longer to deliver. Hodgson started selling porter to the ships’ captains and then moved into also selling a paler beer that was then known as October beer.

October beer was a lighter drink that was popular with the middle and upper classes who viewed porter as a working man’s beer. Technically, Hodgson sold it to the sailors unmatured. It usually took a year before October beer could be bottled and then another year before it should be drunk. However, nobody factored in what would happen to barrels of October beer on the ship’s voyages to the Far East.

St Mary le Bow in London

East India Shipping Company

East India Company ships typically spent up to six months or more sailing to India from the East End. This took them from temperate to hot climates and then rough seas. The effects of the higher temperatures and the rough treatment of high seas on the beer were quite remarkable. It matured much more quickly than it would have done on dry land. In fact, by the time it reached its destination, it was thought to have matured more than six times its age in a period of a just few months. This whole process turned October beer into a new kind of drink that ultimately became Pale Ale.

Over time, this Bow Brewery ale became fantastically popular in India and the brewery had one of the best reputations on the continent for decades. By 1811, Hodgson’s son Mark was in charge of the brewery, which was now shipping over 4,000 barrels of beer a year. This is around four times as much beer as the brewery had shipped just a few years before in 1801.

Bow Brewery Expansion and Rebuild

In 1821, the brewery had expanded and was completely rebuilt. Its then owners decided that they could make more money if they sold their beer direct, rather than using the East India Company’s captains as middlemen. This made sound financial sense as it actually cost around the same to ship a barrel of beer to India as it did to get it up to Scotland! To try and get rid of the East India Company’s officers they changed their favourable terms, selling only for cash at a higher price and with reduced credit options.

Although this seems like a sensible move on paper, it did not work out at all well. The shipping companies and local merchants who had historically sold the brewery’s products were up in arms. Some of them approached the Allsop brewery in Burton upon Trent and persuaded its owner to move into the Indian market to compete against the Bow Brewery’s monopoly.

The success of this option would depend on whether Allsop’s operation could create an acceptable version of India Pale Ale that could compete with the original. It turned out that the local water in Burton actually produced a better version that was tastier and paler than Hodgson’s original ale. The Indian market much preferred Allsop’s version and beer from the Bow Brewery became increasingly unpopular. The Indian market was taken over by Allsop’s and other breweries.

The Bow Brewery never quite recovered its past successes and it changed hands relatively frequently. The brewery buildings lasted until 1933 when they were demolished and replaced by housing. The beer Hodgson and his son created still, however, lives on.

3 comments on “History of Bow Brewery
  1. s broderick says:

    Interesting article, thank you

  2. Ken Stewart says:

    Dear sir. Do you know of any pictures of the eagle brewery tap in poplar high street. I have a picture of my grandad outside a brewery tap in 1921. Can’t find any pic

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