Kenton’s Secret Preparation for Export Porter

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.

BOOKS: A Scrapbook of Inns, 1949

The cover of A Scrapbook of Inns.

A Scrapbook of Inns by Rowland Watson, published in 1949, is a cut above the usual ‘quaint old inns’ hack job, its snippets of old books and articles acting as an effective index to beer and pub writing from public domain sources.

It’s not rare. We picked our copy up for £3.99 in a char­i­ty shop, still in its dust jack­et, and with a ded­i­ca­tion to ‘Syd­ney, with best wish­es from Rhode & all at Bed­ford, Christ­mas 1954’. There are plen­ty of copies for sale online at around the same price and we’ve seen mul­ti­ple copies in sec­ond­hand book­shops in the past year.

We think – assume – the author is the same Row­land Wat­son best known as a lit­er­ary edi­tor, born in 1890, and who died in 1968. He doesn’t have much to say about him­self in the fore­word, using those two brief para­graphs to ham­mer an impor­tant point: this anthol­o­gy is not a col­lec­tion of the usu­al quo­ta­tions from Pepys, Dr John­son and Dick­ens, but rather of obscu­ri­ties book­marked dur­ing decades of read­ing, most­ly from the 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­turies.

Con­tin­ue read­ingBOOKS: A Scrap­book of Inns, 1949”

QUOTE: The English – Great Guzzlers of Beer

I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great guzzlers of beer… We had an alehouse boy who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, and pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work.”

Ben­jamin Franklin recalls work­ing in a Lon­don print­ing house in 1725 in chap­ter IV of his auto­bi­og­ra­phy.