“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.