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”

Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles

Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.

In the November/December issue of UK brew­ing indus­try mag­a­zine The Grist Kei­th Thomas pro­vid­ed a tech­ni­cal break­down of the typ­i­cal strength, colour and bit­ter­ness of British beer styles. It is full of fas­ci­nat­ing jew­els of infor­ma­tion but the most inter­est­ing parts are this graph…

A graph showing beers clustered around the same bitterness and colour.

… and this table which shows the mea­sured colour (EBC) and bit­ter­ness (EBU) of a hun­dred beers with the num­bers pre­scribed by CAMRA’s style guide­lines beneath in brack­ets:

Style No. Brands Colour Min-Max Bit­ter­ness Min-Max
Light Mild 5 43
(44)
15–29
(39–47)
23
(21)
15–29
(21–23)
Dark Mild 12 117
(94)
64–223
(39–223)
22
(21)
13–28
(12–28)
Bit­ter 27 25
(27)
15–66
(16–38)
25
(25)
18–39
(9–48)
Best Bit­ter 19 28
(27)
13–71
(13–65)
28
(30)
22–43
(16–52)
Strong Bit­ter 16 33
(33)
16–49
(10–109)
33
(30)
21–37
(20–52)
Porter 6 150
(157)
69–305
(97–249)
30
(36)
21–37
(18–45)
Old Ale 4 64
(95)
48–75
(27–114)
28
(28)
25–31
(18–45)

These offer a fair­ly pre­cise snap­shot of the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion in 1995–96 and that is some­what inter­est­ing in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you dis­cov­er that Dr Thomas and his col­leagues at BrewLab in Sun­der­land have been check­ing in on these stats ever since.

They pub­lished a detailed report in 2006, sad­ly locked away behind pay­walls (British Food Jour­nal, Vol. 108, in case any­one has access) and have an update in the works. In the mean­time, though, they have released a sort of trail­er in the form of a press release, which states (our empha­sis)…

[The] fea­tures of many styles remained sim­i­lar to the para­me­ters sum­ma­rized in 2006.  How­ev­er, when con­sid­ered over­all some dif­fer­ences are evi­dent.  Aver­age alco­hol lev­els are down by 3% on aver­age.  This did vary by style and was main­ly due to old ales being weak­er.  More exten­sive dif­fer­ences are evi­dent in beer colour and bit­ter­ness.  While bit­ter­ness over­all has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%.  This is par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in the dark­er beers – milds, porters and stouts.  In gen­er­al, it appears that beers are becom­ing lighter but more bit­ter.… It was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing to see that stan­dard beers are retain­ing their char­ac­ter but also that dark­er beers appear to be evolv­ing.  The intro­duc­tion of blond and gold­en beers has had an impact on the mar­ket and pos­si­bly influ­enced changes in oth­er styles.

It also comes with a use­ful info­graph­ic (believe it or not such things do exist) from which we’ve snipped these details:

There’s lots of inter­est­ing stuff to chew on there:

  • What’s the dif­fer­ence between porter and stout? Noth­ing, says his­to­ry. About 15 points in colour and 7 points of bit­ter­ness, say these real world obser­va­tions.
  • Dark mild has got more bit­ter since 1995–96… or is it just that the more bit­ter, char­ac­ter­ful exam­ples have proven resilient dur­ing the ongo­ing extinc­tion event?
  • What’s the dif­fer­ence between old ale and bar­ley wine? Not much, says his­to­ry. About 65 points in colour and six or sev­en points of bit­ter­ness, sez this.

The Great Porter Flood of 2017

At some point in the last year a memo must have gone round all the traditional-regional-family brewers: let’s brew porter!

So far this year we’ve noticed new ones from:

And that’s before we get into debat­able cas­es such as the revived Truman’s which has a vanil­la porter in devel­op­ment.

Have we missed any oth­ers?

We’d guess this has been enabled by the trend for small pilot plants which enable large brew­eries, oth­er­wise equipped to turn out tanker­loads of one or two flag­ship beers, to pro­duce styles with less main­stream appeal on the side. For a long time this was often cit­ed as the rea­son for the lack of dark beers – they don’t sell enough to war­rant a full brew – so this might also bode well for oth­er mar­gin­al styles such as mild.

We’re also firm­ly of the view that porter is a more dig­ni­fied way of meet­ing the cur­rent demand for nov­el­ty and vari­ety than dis­ap­point­ing cod-Amer­i­can IPAs, or beers that are sup­posed to taste of Tequi­la.

What­ev­er the rea­sons and motives we’d be quite hap­py if Octo­ber-Decem­ber became a sort of semi-offi­cial porter sea­son across the coun­try. Imag­ine know­ing that you could walk into almost any halfway decent pub and find porter on draught – imag­ine!

Plum Porter: Dividing Opinion

A plum.

We were a bit excited to come across Titanic Plum Porter in the pub last night, a beer many people worship and others despise.

We can’t say we’ve drunk it often enough to form a real­ly sol­id view on how it is meant to be but have always enjoyed it. The first time we recall encoun­ter­ing it (that is, when we were pay­ing atten­tion) was at the Cas­tle Hotel in Man­ches­ter where it struck us a heavy, rich porter with a fruity twist. At the Welling­ton in Bris­tol it seemed lighter in both colour and body and more like a British answer to a Bel­gian kriek or fram­boise – tart, and dom­i­nat­ed by the hot crum­ble flavours of bruised fruit. Even at five quid a pint (yikes!) we had to stop for a sec­ond round.

When we Tweet­ed about it, acknowl­edg­ing what we under­stood to be its mixed rep­u­ta­tion, here’s some of what peo­ple said in response:

  • When it’s good, it’s very good; when it’s bad, it’s hor­rid. Con­sis­ten­cy seems dubi­ous.” – @olliedearn
  • WHAT?! In what world is it divide opin­ion? Every­one I know loves it.” – @Jon_BOA
  • My bete noire, was always dubi­ous about it (even though I love oth­er Titan­ic brews) – per­haps I need to revis­it…” – @beertoday
  • Hav­ing lived in Stoke + cov­ered the Pot­ter­ies beer scene I’d say it’s a good advert (flag­ship, I dare say!) for local beers, despite flaws.” – @LiamapBarnes

So, pret­ty bal­anced, from Ugh! to Wow!

Over the years we’ve seen yet harsh­er com­ments, though, some of which struck us as more about Titanic’s place on the scene than about this beer in par­tic­u­lar. In gen­er­al, we find Titanic’s beer rather mid­dling – not bad, not great – but it is nonethe­less a major pres­ence in the Mid­lands and North West, and on super­mar­ket shelves nation­wide, and ubiq­ui­ty breeds con­tempt. For some time, too, its own­er Kei­th Bott was chair­man of increas­ing­ly con­tro­ver­sial indus­try body SIBA, so per­haps the beer tastes a bit of pol­i­tics, the nas­ti­est off-flavour of all.

This made us think about oth­er beers that strike us as fun­da­men­tal­ly decent but whose rep­u­ta­tions might be sim­i­lar­ly weighed down. Cop­per Drag­on Gold­en Pip­pin, for exam­ple, is a beer we’ve always enjoyed – good val­ue, straight­for­ward, but with a bit more peachy zing than some oth­ers in the same cat­e­go­ry. When we expressed this enthu­si­asm a while ago, though, there seemed to be a sug­ges­tion that we shouldn’t enjoy it because the brew­ery has engaged in some com­pli­cat­ed and news­wor­thy busi­ness prac­tices.

And St Austell Trib­ute is a beer we’ll always stick up for. At the Nags Head in Waltham­stow c.2009 we drank tons of it and found it every bit as good as, almost inter­change­able with, the exem­plary Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord sold in the same pub. (Fur­ther read­ing: ‘The Land­lord Test’.) But these days, even though Trib­ute is prob­a­bly  bet­ter than its ever been in tech­ni­cal terms, it elic­its groans from many enthu­si­asts. That’s because it’s become one of those beers you find in pubs that aren’t very inter­est­ed in beer, pushed into the wrong bits of the coun­try by keen sales teams and big dis­tri­b­u­tion deals; and on trains, in hotel bars, under ran­dom rocks you pick up deep in the woods, and so on. That in-your-face nation­al pres­ence is not only annoy­ing in its own right but also makes it hard­er to find a pint that has tru­ly been cared for. But, as a beer, on its own terms… It can still taste great, and inter­est­ing with it.

The flip­side of all this, of course, is that some mediocre or even bad beers get a free pass because the peo­ple that make them are good eggs, or under­dogs, or have a good sto­ry to tell; or because they’re scarce, so that nobody ever real­ly gets to know them, and is too excit­ed when they do find them in the wild to be objec­tive­ly crit­i­cal.

It’s impos­si­ble to be objec­tive, obvi­ous­ly, but it’s good to try – to attempt to blank out every­thing else and have a moment where it’s just you and the beer.