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Dire Times For Beer

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By: Ganesh Saili
If you could turn the clock back a hundred years, you would find our local breweries employing 131 men and producing nearly half a million gallons of beer. But the bubble burst with the opening of the Suez Canal, which saw a drastic drop in transportation costs. Ships no longer had to go around the Cape of Good Hope, as with the advent of new technology, beer could be made in hotter climes. Already in dire straits, one by one, like a House of Cards, our local breweries folded up, leaving behind gaping ruins.

Armchair chroniclers like me often find that the researching of social history can be a perilous task; sometimes as futile as looking for a needle in a haystack. One false step and you may have the bull by the tail. Though at times, for those who persevere, with a bit of luck, a shard of sparkling glass may turn out to be a diamond. The other day looking for fresh insights into our early brewers, a snippet in the Madras Courier caught my eye. It had Edward Dyer, pioneer-brewer-distiller of Solan and Murree, coming to Mussoorie to meet his brother.

‘Want to make a fortune?’ John Dyer, a successful lawyer, settled here, asked. ‘Go back to Scotland. Learn how to brew beer.’

So far, so good. But one teeny-weeny niggling doubt about this amazing feat: Edward was not even a twinkle in his mother’s eyes when the German, Henry Bohle had already set up our first brewery in 1831. On finding the plains too hot to brew beer, where the wild strains of yeast played havoc with the process of brewing, he had headed to the cooler climes of the hills.

His beer is acknowledged by Fanny Parkes in her diaries where she wrote that the local beer was very fair, considering it was country made. She insists that ‘it cannot be compared to Bass’s or Allsopp’s Pale Ale.’

Trouble came knocking when troopers from Landour’s Convalescent Depot presented forged passes to slake their thirst. Immediately Bohle was called to account, charged with distilling spirits without a licence even though no trace of a distillery was ever found. Those charges sent his six acre estate to the hammer, where it was bought by the Scotsman, John Mackinnon, who later married Bohle’s sister. At Lyndale estate he produced Pale Ale, Strong Ale (XXXX) and XXX Porter, advertised as: ‘Brewed with Malt Cured on the German system and the finest English hops only, and are guaranteed free from Arsenic.’

Our hill breweries ensured no one died of thirst, which explains why another brewery called the Crown Brewery was set up by Messrs Murch & Dyer, in Barlowganj and yet another called the Whymper’s Brewery came up in 1876.

On 23rd February 1877 the Commandant of Landour Depot Lieut. Col. J. M. Campbell, gushed: ‘Beer supplied by you to the depot under my command has invariably been of most excellent quality, and that the men prefer it to any other issued to them.’

The Redcoats weren’t the only ones who were thirsty. Mr. Blunt, a drunk army chaplain, reportedly exposed himself to soldiers and sailors, while ‘talking all sorts of bawdy and ribaldry, and singing scraps of the most blackguard and indecent songs, so as to render himself a common laughing stock.’

No one laughed when the Kangra Earthquake hit Mussoorie in 1905, disrupting by one-third the flow of water at the Lyndale spring,
But back to Edward Dyer, who never returned to Mussoorie, and instead chose Solan before going on to Muree, where he started successful breweries. His son, Reginald Edward Harry Dyer was born in Muree, schooled at Simla’s Bishop Cotton and later headed the horrific Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, to gain infamy as the Butcher of Amritsar. It was the most shameful day in the history of the British in India and there are plenty to choose from. The only saving grace was that by then, both his parents had passed away, thereby saving them the ignominy that came crashing down.

Not all beer stories end with a nice buzz.

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.