Brewing in Georgian Bristol: smells and cellars

When I’m not obsessing over beer I sometimes obsess over architecture which is why I’ve been reading Walter Ison’s The Buildings of Georgian Bristol.

It was first pub­lished in 1952 and revised for a sec­ond edi­tion in 1978. It most­ly com­pris­es fair­ly dry research into build­ings and street lay­outs – who designed or built what with ref­er­ence to orig­i­nal con­tracts, whether the ped­i­ment is seg­men­tal or not, and so on – but you won’t be sur­prised to learn that there are a cou­ple men­tions of brew­ing that leapt out.

The first is with ref­er­ence to Queen Square, which you can see from Small Bar on King Street, to give a beer geek friend­ly ref­er­ence point. Orig­i­nal­ly marsh­land, it was divid­ed up into plots from 1699 and built up between 1700 and 1718. It had a dual car­riage­way run­ning through the mid­dle for most of the 20th cen­tu­ry but is these days once again a peace­ful pub­lic space.

Ison quotes from the city records for 1699 which include the terms of what we would now call plan­ning per­mis­sion for the first house on Queen Square:

[No] Ten­e­ment [is] to be lett out to any sort of Ten­ants par­tic­u­lar­ly no Smiths Shopp Brew­house nor to any Tal­low-Chan­dler or to any oth­er Trades­men who by noyse dan­ger of ffire or ill smells shall dis­turbe or annoy any of the Inhab­i­tants who shall build neer it…

This was a classy devel­op­ment for well-to-do folk and it would­n’t do for it to pong or oth­er­wise exhib­it evi­dence of peo­ple work­ing. These days in Bris­tol, brew­eries tend to be on indus­tri­al estates – the log­i­cal con­clu­sion of this kind of zon­ing reg­u­la­tion.

The sec­ond ref­er­ence comes in a descrip­tion of the devel­op­ment of Port­land Square from 1788. Here, Ison quotes for a sale notice for the mid­dle house on the south side of the square from 1812:

[The house con­tains] three arched under-ground cel­lars, a ser­vants’ hall, house­keep­er’s room, back-kitchen, larder, brew-house, and oth­er offices…

A brew­house is an inter­est­ing addi­tion to a large, fash­ion­able house as late as the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry. Oth­er hous­es near­by seem to have had wine cel­lars rather the brew­ing facil­i­ties, at least accord­ing to Ison’s notes, so the own­er of this one was clear­ly one of us.

But who did the brew­ing? What did they brew? Where would we even start look­ing to find out?

Main image: detail of ‘The Man­sion House at the cor­ner of Queen Square look­ing along Queen Char­lotte Street’, Samuel Jack­son, 1824, via Water­colour World/Bristol Muse­ums.

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.