The novelist and historian Walter Besant’s 1888 book Fifty Years Ago is an attempt to record the details of life in England in the 1830s, including pubs and beer.
Of course this doesn’t count as a primary source, even if 1888 is closer to 1838 than 2020. Besant was himself born in 1836 and the book seems laced with rosy nostalgia – a counterpoint, at least, to contemporary sources whose detail is distorted by temperance mania.
Still, there are lots of interesting details, and lines of research that beg to be chased down. Take this note on beer styles for starters:
Beer, of course, was the principal beverage, and there were many more varieties of beer than at present prevail. One reads of ‘Brook clear Kennett’— it used to be sold in a house near the Oxford Street end of Tottenham Court Road; of Shropshire ale, described as ‘dark and heavy’; of the ‘luscious Burton, innocent of hops’- of new ale, old ale, bitter ale, hard ale, soft ale, the ‘balmy’ Scotch, mellow October, and good brown stout. All these were to be obtained at taverns which made a specialité, as they would say now, of any one kind. Thus the best stout in London was to be had at the Brace Tavern in the Queen’s Bench Prison, and the Cock was also famous for the same beverage, served in pint glasses. A rival of the Cock, in this respect, was the Rainbow, long before the present handsome room was built.
It doesn’t take much digging to find Besant’s source for this passage which was a guide to London nightlife published in the 1820s. The original contains this wonderful line which recalls Michael Hardman’s description of drinking bitter in the 1970s: “[In] many of the inland counties, the good folks like a hard, severe, cut-throat beverage”.
But what was Kennett Ale?
Our immediate thought, being based in the West Country, was that there must be some connection with the Kennett and Avon Canal.
And, sure enough, here’s the entry from an 1835 topographical dictionary for the Wiltshire village from which the canal takes its name…
This place, in Domesday book called ‘Chenete,’ was anciently a distinct parish, and was held by the church of St. Mary at Winchester. The village, which is pleasantly situated on the road to Bath, is noted for the celebrated Kennett ale, which is brewed only at this place, not from the water of the river Kennett, as is generally supposed, but from a fine limpid spring on the premises, which is soft to the taste, and slightly impregnated with magnesia. This ale first came into repute in 1789, and many thousand barrels of it are sent annually to London and to all parts of the country.
Looking in the newspaper archives, we find a reference from 1848 to “The Crown Tavern, and noted Kennett Ale house” at Pentonville, which suggests that there were indeed multiple pubs in London famous for serving this particular country brew. (Morning Advertiser, 14 June.)
In fact, The Crown even inspired a ballad, quoted in an article in 1874 but described as being from the 18th century:
Will you travel with your Bill
To the Crown at Pentonville,
Where the cove sells Kennett ale,
Which, like you, looks very pale,
I like it best when stale,
From 1845, there are also adverts for ‘Allsop’s & Butler’s Kennett Ale in find condition’ – had it, by this point, become what we’d now call a beer style, divorced from its geographic roots, being brewed in the Midlands? Butler’s, which we assumed is the same brewery that later became part of Mitchells & Butlers, was still producing a Kennett as late as 1868.
Right, let’s keep pulling this thread – can we find more detail of what Kennett Ale might have tasted like, or what made it distinctive other than the source water?
Well, here’s what purports to be a recipe, from 1853:
Take 1 quarter of good amber malt and 8 lbs. of brown hops. Three liquors to make two boilings. First boil for ½ an hour— second ¾ of an hour. Use in the first wort in the copper when boiling 1½ oz. of coriander seeds and ½ an oz. of chillies. First mash set at 170°, with a barrel and a half of liquor: the second at 182°, with the same quantity of liquor; the third at 156°, with 2 barrels of liquor. Set it to work at 64°, and cleanse it at 74° with a good head; this will make rather more than 2 barrels. This much resembles Burton ale, but is not so strong.
Coriander and chillies!? Now, let’s take this with a pinch of salt (figuratively speaking – we don’t want to make this recipe any more complicated) because these home recipe books are often a bit peculiar, being based on guesswork more than insight.
Let’s assume, though, that the author of this recipe was trying to capture a certain spiciness that the beer seemed to have.
The most useful nugget, in fact, is that bit at the end which gives us a sense of how Kennett might have fit into the scheme of things, being rich and sweet but not overwhelmingly boozy.
From Reading to Ohio
There’s more to the thread yet: the above recipe is actually billed as ‘Kennett/Reading Ale’. What’s the story there?
And then there’s the Cleveland connection:
“The beer style originated in the Kennett/Reading area in England and came over here with some immigrant brewers,” [brewer Andy] Tveekrem said. “It was brewed by a few local breweries in the Cleveland area but I have yet to find anything on it being brewed elsewhere in the U.S. … although I haven’t really tried too hard.”
Before we keep pulling and digging, do let us know what you know about Kennett or Reading Ale in the comments below.