Obadiah Poundage: instructive, refreshingly accessible

American brewery Goose Island has collaborated with beer historian Ron Pattinson, veteran London brewer Derek Prentice and the Wimbledon Brewery to produce what it reckons is the most accurate recreation of a 19th century London porter yet.

We’ve known this beer was in the pipeline for a while, not least because Goose Island’s Mike Siegel emailed us back in February asking for help finding an illustration of porter vats to be used in the promo video.

As with the stock ale produced by the same team a few years back, we were excited to try it and kept a close eye on the news. When Mike emailed last week to say it was on sale via Beer Hawk, we snapped up three 500ml bottles at £8 each, plus postage.

A quick note: Goose Island is owned by AB-InBev; so is Beer Hawk. That, along with the price, might give some principled beer geeks reason to hold off. And, further disclosure: we’ve corresponded with Mike Siegel on and off for years, we know Ron Pattinson fairly well, and someone from Beer Hawk subscribes to our Patreon.

For our part, we don’t draw a hard line re: AB and would point to this as an example of where the resources big beer is able to bring to the table pays off for curious consumers. That’s a thought echoed by Ron Pattinson in an email responding to a question from us – why work with Goose Island?

A totally honest assessment is: because they pay me cash money and pay for a load of travel. Financially, it’s one of the few collaborations that make any sense for me. It’s also a case of them being able to afford what are very expensive projects with little chance of making much of a profit on the beer. I’m pretty sure they lost money on Brewery Yard. We’ve been collaborating for about five years and have only managed two beers so far. Most small breweries couldn’t justify the effort and time for pretty much no financial return… In many ways it’s a breath of fresh air working with a large brewery. They expect to have to pay for my services. Something smaller brewers often neglect… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had very good experiences with some very small breweries. Pretty Things and Zebulon, for example. Others really take the piss.

In this case, those resources paid for authentic brown malt kilned over hornbeam wood by Valley Malt of Massachusetts, and the wherewithal to age for a year one of the two beers blended to create the final product.

After all that effort, it only seemed fair to drink it from the oldest beer glass in the cupboard, c.1930s, and to give it our full attention.

It had fairly high carbonation but certainly not any ‘fizz’ and gave off a musty, leathery stink immediately on opening. It was deep red rather than black.

First gulps, dominated by the funky aroma of Brettanomyces, revealed a lighter body than many modern porters, despite the 6.3% alcohol by volume, and a distinct dryness.

First reactions: Ray liked it, Jess didn’t.

“Tastes like Bretted water,” was her gut response.

Ray found more to enjoy, picking up on a sort of nutmeg spiciness and more tobacco and leather.

The key takeaway, if we accept the authenticity of this recreation, is that 19th century porter wasn’t as madly challenging as we might sometimes imagine. It was an everyday drink, not an ‘extreme beer’.

As long as you’re somewhat used to Brettanomyces, it’s a refreshing, lively, fairly easy-drinking beer – not sour, heavy or sickly.

If you’re interested in historic beer, you will want to try it if you can. Having said that, we reckon you could get about 90% of the way there by blending your favourite strong porter with Orval.

What we’d really like is for other brewers to taste this and think, oh, easy – I can do that. We’d be delighted to come across more dark beers with Brettanomyces, historically accurate or not, especially if they were presented without hoo-ha, by the pint, in normal pubs.

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.

Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900-1959 — The Rise of Mild

While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub (please buy a copy) is beer.

It’s absence was the result of having only 80,000 words to play with, and having already written an entire book focusing on beer and brewing covering a big chunk of the same period.

Also, we rather defer to Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson in this territory. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be surprised if one or both of them don’t pop up with corrections in the comments below.)

Still, there’s something fun about the idea of mapping one project against the other, especially if it’s an opportunity to try something creative.


At this point we’d like to thank  Patreon supporters like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tucker for giving us the impetus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entirely sensible working on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!


This piece generalises by necessity: of course there were regional variations, and individual pubs which didn’t follow the pattern, and breweries that bucked trends. Having said that, by the turn of the century, regional differences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of standard-setting national brands such as Bass and Guinness, Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson have argued, so generalising about this period isn’t entirely inappropriate.

So, here it is: a timeline of beer in English pubs from 1900 to 1959, with lots of quotations, facts and numbers along the way.

Continue reading “Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900-1959 — The Rise of Mild”