Kenton’s Secret Preparation for Export Porter

Benjamin Kenton.

The Crown and Mag­pie Tav­ern had, besides its wine trade, been long not­ed for the expor­ta­tion of beer to the East and West Indies; the prin­ci­pal being in the pos­ses­sion of a secret prepa­ra­tion, which pre­vent­ed the too great fer­men­ta­tion of malt liquor in warm cli­mates, con­se­quent­ly it ren­dered the liquor more palat­able and estimable.”

This pas­sage comes from a ref­er­ence book called the Biographia Curiosa pub­lished in Lon­don in 1827 and refers to a not­ed pub­li­can, Ben­jamin Ken­ton.

We came across it in A Scrap­book of Inns, a com­pi­la­tion of pub-relat­ed snip­pets from 1949, but the full orig­i­nal text is here.

The sto­ry is that Ken­ton, born 1719, grew up in Whitechapel in the East End of Lon­don and at 14 became an appren­tice at the Old Angel and Crown near Goul­ston Street. Excelling as an appren­tice, he became a bar­man-wait­er, before defect­ing to anoth­er near­by pub, the Crown and Mag­pie.

Here’s the Curiosa bit, we sup­pose: the land­lord of the C&M, Kenton’s boss, had tak­en the mag­pie off the sign, after which point the export beer sud­den­ly lost its mag­ic qual­i­ty. Only when he died and Ken­ton, tak­ing over the pub, put the mag­pie back on the sign did it return to its for­mer excel­lence.

Ken­ton ran the C&M until around 1780 when he retired from the trade, though he kept up the whole­sale busi­ness from a premis­es in the Minories. He out­lived his chil­dren, and all oth­er rela­tions, and died in 1800, worth £300,000 – about £25m in today’s mon­ey.

The good news is, we don’t need to rely on this one after-the-fact source for infor­ma­tion on Ben­jamin Ken­ton and his excel­lent export beer because Alan McLeod has already com­piled a slew of con­tem­po­rary ref­er­ences from an Amer­i­can colo­nial per­spec­tive. Kenton’s name was appar­ent­ly a val­ued brand – a mark of qual­i­ty worth men­tion­ing in adver­tise­ments for import­ed British beer that appeared in news­pa­pers in New York City in the late 18th cen­tu­ry. Here’s a pass­ing men­tion from a 1787 book, as quot­ed by Alan:

On tak­ing leave he invit­ed me to dine with him the fol­low­ing day, at his plan­ta­tion, where I was regaled in a most lux­u­ri­ous man­ner; the tur­tle was supe­ri­or to any ever served on a lord mayor’s table; the’oranges and pine-apples were of the high­est flavour; Ben Kenton’s porter sparkled like cham­paign, and excel­lent claret and Madeira crowned the feast.

Which brings us back to the main ques­tion: what was the trick to the supe­ri­or qual­i­ty of the export beer from the Mag­pie and Crown, which Ben Ken­ton inher­it­ed and made his name from?

In his 1959 aca­d­e­m­ic mas­ter­work The Brew­ing Indus­try in Britain 1700–1830 Peter Matthias gives a straight­for­ward expla­na­tion:

Ben­jamin Wil­son and Samuel All­sopp often advised cus­tomers to bot­tle the ale which they want­ed to sur­vive into the sum­mer, leav­ing the bot­tles uncorked for a time to allow the ale to get flat. This was exact­ly the pro­ce­dure adopt­ed by a Lon­don wine mer­chant, Ken­ton, who is said to have first shipped porter suc­cess­ful­ly to the East Indies. Once ‘flat’, it was corked and sealed so that the sec­ondary and ter­tiary fer­men­ta­tion on the voy­age brought it up to the nec­es­sary state of ‘brisk­ness’ by the time it reached India.

We bet that beer was pret­ty funky by the time it reached its final des­ti­na­tion.

2 thoughts on “Kenton’s Secret Preparation for Export Porter”

  1. Let­ting the beer flat­ten in the cask before load­ing onto the ship was stan­dard prac­tice for IPA being sent to India. Plus a long sec­ondary Bret­tanomyces fer­men­ta­tion before that which stripped out almost all the fer­menta­bles. I’ve analy­ses of bot­tled Bass where the FG is 1002 and the appar­ent degree of atten­u­a­tion almost 100%.

  2. Cer­tain­ly a good find but so many ref­er­ences to flat­ten­ing (and some opposed to the prac­tice due to risk of oxi­da­tion) in 1800s lit­er­a­ture, both for draft and bot­tled…

    This seems some type of hero­ic expla­na­tion and I’d guess some­thing else explained the qual­i­ty of the stout unless noth­ing more was meant than his bot­tles didn’t burst.

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