Brooke Clear Kennett and other delights in 1830s London

The novelist and historian Walter Besant’s 1888 book Fifty Years Ago is an attempt to record the details of life in England in the 1830s, including pubs and beer.

Of course this doesn’t count as a primary source, even if 1888 is closer to 1838 than 2020. Besant was himself born in 1836 and the book seems laced with rosy nostalgia – a counterpoint, at least, to contemporary sources whose detail is distorted by temperance mania.

Still, there are lots of interesting details, and lines of research that beg to be chased down. Take this note on beer styles for starters:

Beer, of course, was the principal beverage, and there were many more varieties of beer than at present prevail. One reads of ‘Brook clear Kennett’— it used to be sold in a house near the Oxford Street end of Tottenham Court Road; of Shropshire ale, described as ‘dark and heavy’; of the ‘luscious Burton, innocent of hops’- of new ale, old ale, bitter ale, hard ale, soft ale, the ‘balmy’ Scotch, mellow October, and good brown stout. All these were to be obtained at taverns which made a specialité, as they would say now, of any one kind. Thus the best stout in London was to be had at the Brace Tavern in the Queen’s Bench Prison, and the Cock was also famous for the same beverage, served in pint glasses. A rival of the Cock, in this respect, was the Rainbow, long before the present handsome room was built.

It doesn’t take much digging to find Besant’s source for this passage which was a guide to London nightlife published in the 1820s. The original contains this wonderful line which recalls Michael Hardman’s description of drinking bitter in the 1970s: “[In] many of the inland counties, the good folks like a hard, severe, cut-throat beverage”.

But what was Kennett Ale?

Our immediate thought, being based in the West Country, was that there must be some connection with the Kennett and Avon Canal.

And, sure enough, here’s the entry from an 1835 topographical dictionary for the Wiltshire village from which the canal takes its name…

This place, in Domesday book called ‘Chenete,’ was anciently a distinct parish, and was held by the church of St. Mary at Winchester. The village, which is pleasantly situated on the road to Bath, is noted for the celebrated Kennett ale, which is brewed only at this place, not from the water of the river Kennett, as is generally supposed, but from a fine limpid spring on the premises, which is soft to the taste, and slightly impregnated with magnesia. This ale first came into repute in 1789, and many thousand barrels of it are sent annually to London and to all parts of the country.

Looking in the newspaper archives, we find a reference from 1848 to “The Crown Tavern, and noted Kennett Ale house” at Pentonville, which suggests that there were indeed multiple pubs in London famous for serving this particular country brew. (Morning Advertiser, 14 June.)

In fact, The Crown even inspired a ballad, quoted in an article in 1874 but described as being from the 18th century:

Will you travel with your Bill
To the Crown at Pentonville,
Bonnet-builder, O!
Where the cove sells Kennett ale,
Which, like you, looks very pale,
I like it best when stale,
Bonnet-builder, O!

From 1845, there are also adverts for ‘Allsop’s & Butler’s Kennett Ale in find condition’ – had it, by this point, become what we’d now call a beer style, divorced from its geographic roots, being brewed in the Midlands? Butler’s, which we assumed is the same brewery that later became part of Mitchells & Butlers, was still producing a Kennett as late as 1868.

The recipe

Right, let’s keep pulling this thread – can we find more detail of what Kennett Ale might have tasted like, or what made it distinctive other than the source water?

Well, here’s what purports to be a recipe, from 1853:

Take 1 quarter of good amber malt and 8 lbs. of brown hops. Three liquors to make two boilings. First boil for ½ an hour— second ¾ of an hour. Use in the first wort in the copper when boiling 1½ oz. of coriander seeds and ½ an oz. of chillies. First mash set at 170°, with a barrel and a half of liquor: the second at 182°, with the same quantity of liquor; the third at 156°, with 2 barrels of liquor. Set it to work at 64°, and cleanse it at 74° with a good head; this will make rather more than 2 barrels. This much resembles Burton ale, but is not so strong.

Coriander and chillies!? Now, let’s take this with a pinch of salt (figuratively speaking – we don’t want to make this recipe any more complicated) because these home recipe books are often a bit peculiar, being based on guesswork more than insight.

Let’s assume, though, that the author of this recipe was trying to capture a certain spiciness that the beer seemed to have.

The most useful nugget, in fact, is that bit at the end which gives us a sense of how Kennett might have fit into the scheme of things, being rich and sweet but not overwhelmingly boozy.

From Reading to Ohio

There’s more to the thread yet: the above recipe is actually billed as ‘Kennett/Reading Ale’. What’s the story there?

And then there’s the Cleveland connection:

“The beer style originated in the Kennett/Reading area in England and came over here with some immigrant brewers,” [brewer Andy] Tveekrem said. “It was brewed by a few local breweries in the Cleveland area but I have yet to find anything on it being brewed elsewhere in the U.S. … although I haven’t really tried too hard.”

Before we keep pulling and digging, do let us know what you know about Kennett or Reading Ale in the comments below.

Getting away with it

You open your eyes, slowly.

Not too bad.

No instinctive shying from the light.

There doesn’t seem to be any nausea, although you won’t really know until you try to get up and do something.

You definitely need to piss, and your mouth feels powder-dry, but it’s possible you might be able to address those needs without last night’s mixed seafood basket resurfacing.

Bathroom, kitchen, a glass of water absorbed rather than drunk, and then you go back to bed, because you don’t want to push your luck.

After a brief doze, you find yourself actively craving a cuppa, and… is that actually a hunger pang? Tea first. See if that stays down.

Seems OK.

Can’t be, surely?

The Orval for round five was pushing it, and then you then stayed for a sixth, enjoying it with the grim knowledge of impending doom.

Than again, thinking about it, you had sense enough to stop at the chippy on the way home, and drink two pints of water before going to bed, and to take another pint up to bed.

Or perhaps you’re still drunk. Yeah, might be that. Take it easy. Brace yourself for the coming storm.

A few hours later, breakfast and lunch conquered, you start to dare to believe that you might really have got away with it.

The thought of a pint later that afternoon is not actually unappealing.

But perhaps, as the Hangover Gods have smiled on you today, you shouldn’t push your luck.

Photo by Manu Schwendener via Unsplash.

The Portcullis, Clifton: peculiarly Belgian

It took a couple of visits for us to get The Portcullis in Clifton: as an English pub, it reads as peculiar, but it’s an excellent Belgian cafe.

It really does feel the kind of neighbourhood place you might find in some suburb of Brussels, or out along the route of the coastal tram from Ostend.

On Saturday evening, we sat at a shelf, facing a canvas print of Prince, against a backdrop of red-rose boudoir wallpaper.

We drank Belgian beers chosen from a printed menu, each served in correctly branded glassware – Chimay, Straffe Hendrik, Orval, De Ranke, with more on offer.

Pink Floyd played softly in the background.

The exterior of the Portcullis.
The Portcullis in 2013 – you want the cosy bottom bar, not the upper one.

‘Dogs on leads welcome’, says a sign on the door, and there were lots of dogs on leads, curled under tables or snarling at each other. One, a puppy,, broke a wine glass (“Bloody hell! Got any blue roll?”) then chewed through its lead and broke free, darting across the floor with a posh man in pursuit.

People knew each other’s names. A regular walked in (with dog) and the pulling of his pint commenced without a word being spoken. The hound received its usual order, too – a biscuit from the jar.

The licensees, Dee and Paul Tanner, were on duty, seeming to enjoy their own pub as much as the drinkers do.

Paul made a circuit offering chocolates from a box bought in Bruges only the day before, but otherwise perched on the end of the bar talking to a friend.

Dee was behind the bar, absolutely on it. Every time we ordered from the Belgian selection she said, quietly, things like, “Oh, that’s a fantastic beer,” and hurried off to find the right glass. Her method is to pour the beer at the bar and present both beer and glass with a logo forward. There’s something very Belgian – proud, a little fussy – in the subtle twist she gives the bottle to get it lined up.

“We like our Belgian beer, my husband and I,” she told us, as if it needed saying.

The Belgian beer isn’t cheap – £7 a bottle is standard – but of course there are good reasons for that. There’s also Leffe on tap at £4 per half-pint and ales from Dawkins and others at around £4.20 a pint.

As a little treat every now and then, an alternative to schlepping to Belgium at huge expense, it doesn’t feel outrageous.

We don’t plan to go often – we want it to stay a bit special, for days when we need picking up – but if you’re in Bristol and craving Belgian atmosphere as much as Belgian beer, it’s worth a detour.

The Black Cat, Weston-super-Mare: micropub or craft beer bar?

We’d be wanting to visit The Black Cat, Weston’s year-old micropub, for ages and then, with the promise of glorious sun the weekend before last, a trip to the seaside became irresistible.

Even as we approached The Black Cat, we got a sense of what it was about: quirky, somewhere between hip and Gothic.

Inside, the first thing that struck us was the midnight vibe: indigo walls, black porcelain cats, and a mural that seemed to hint at The Rat & Raven.

Then we noticed the craft beer bar trappings: tealights, posh pickled eggs, £2-a-bag crisps, a complicated menu of beers in different categories, bare wood and bare brick – well, sort of: it was actually, oddly, brick-patterned wallpaper.

Outside the Black Cat.

This strange hybrid is a thing we’ve seen a few times, now, in towns apparently not quite big enough or hip enough to support both a micropub (real ale, conservatism) and a craft beer bar (keg beer, trend-chasing). Sonder in Truro springs to mind as another example.

It sounds a bit chaotic but we immediately felt quite at home, as apparently did the customers: a handful of older men grumbling about football and a young couple with see-through frames on their specs grumbling, in plummier voices, about the difficulty of making a career in The Arts.

Details from the Black Cat.

We struggled, in truth, to land on a beer that we really loved, which happens sometimes in pubs with rotating beer ranges. Butcombe Underfall Lager (think Camden Hells) was very welcome given the heat, though, and Wylam Galatia (a 3.9% pale ale) was certainly good enough to warrant a ‘same again’.

The main selling point was the atmosphere and the chap behind the bar, Rich, who could not have done any more to make us feel welcome, help us navigate the menu, or accommodate off-menu requests for (a) cups of tea; (b) instant coffee; (c) a surface on which to play cards.

Ray’s dad, who is fussy about pubs, left with a loyalty card in his pocket and plans to come back.

It’s not the kind of pub we want to drink in every time but it’s certainly a good addition to Weston’s beer culture.

News, nuggets and longreads 24 August 2019: Greene King, Kveik, Wellington Boots

Here’s everything on beer and pubs from the past seven days that struck us as especially noteworthy, from Suffolk to Thailand.

The big news of the week – or is it? – is the takeover of English regional brewing behemoth Greene King. Roger Protz, who has been writing about brewery takeovers for half a century, offers commentary here:

In every respect, this is a far more worrying sale [then Fuller’s to Asahi]. Asahi will continue to make beer at the Fuller’s site in Chiswick, West London. It’s a company with a long history of brewing. CK Asset on the other hand has no experience of brewing and its main – if not sole – reason for buying Greene King will be the ownership of a massive tied estate of 2,700 pubs, restaurants and hotels. The Hong Kong company, which is registered in the Cayman Islands, is owned by Li Ka-Shing, one of the world’s richest men. He has a war chest of HK$60 billion to buy up properties and companies throughout the world.

This didn’t make quite the splash the Fuller’s sale did for various reasons: it wasn’t a brewery-to-brewery sale, for one thing, so is harder to parse; and Greene King is far less fondly regarded by beer geeks than Fuller’s.

We’re anxious about it not because we especially love Greene King but because it’s potentially yet another supporting post knocked out from under British beer and pub culture. See here for more thoughts on that.


Mystery yeast.

Lars Marius Garshol has been trying to get to grips with a mystery: is the yeast strain White Labs sell as Kveik really Kveik? If not, what is it?

If this yeast was not the ancestral Muri farm yeast, what was it doing in Bjarne Muri’s apartment? It very clearly is not a wild yeast, but a mix of two domesticated yeasts. It doesn’t seem very plausible that the air in Oslo is full of those. On the other hand it doesn’t seem at all plausible that this was the ancestral Muri yeast… Two things seem clear: this is a domesticated fermentation yeast, and it’s probably not the ancestral Muri yeast. The latter simply because it doesn’t seem well suited for that particular brewing environment.


A tea room.
Lyons Corner House, 1942. SOURCE: HM Government/Wikimedia Commons.

Not about pubs, but adjacent: Thomas Harding has written an account of the history of his family’s business, J. Lyons & Co, which is reviewed in the Guardian by Kathryn Hughes. We became fascinated by Lyons while researching 20th Century Pub, because of this kind of thing:

From the 1920s you could pop into a Lyons tea shop to be served by a “nippy”, a light-footed waitress got up like a parlourmaid. If you were a working girl of the newest and nicest variety – a secretary, teacher or shop assistant – you could eat an express lunch on your own in a Lyons without risking your respectability. If you were feeling particularly smart, you could go up to “town” and stay in the art deco-ish Strand Palace or Regent’s Palace hotels, vernacular versions of elite institutions such as Claridge’s or The Savoy. In the evening you might venture out to the “Troc”, or Trocadero, in your best togs, where you could enjoy a fancy dinner and dance to a jazz band.


Wellies
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons.

Mark Johnson has written an account of a weekend spent at Thornbridge Brewery’s Peakender festival with a typical dash of acid:

I just can’t understand anybody being disgruntled about a little mud. We have worn our wellies on our last two visits to Peakender and not needed them. We wore them in 2019 because, guess what, it is still a festival and this time we happened to need them. Wading through the showground site for two days was not an issue to us at all. Maybe it is because of where we live, I don’t know, but when I see people muttering to themselves about the state of the ground, whilst trying to make it to the toilet wearing FLIP FLOPS… heaven forbid… I don’t know…


Buffy's Bitter.

Paul Bailey (no relation) has some interesting notes on the demise of Buffy’s Brewery (one we’d never heard of) and the problem with ‘badge brewing’:

The closure was blamed on there being too many breweries in Norfolk, and with over 40 of them all competing for a slice of a diminishing market, something had to give. Like many industry observers, I was more than a little surprised to learn that Buffy’s had gone to the wall, but Roger Abrahams, who founded the brewery, along with Julia Savory, claimed that the micro-brewing sector was close to saturation point, and that competition between brewers “had become very aggressive.”


We don’t know anything whatsoever about brewing in Thailand but it turns out to be a complex business, according to this article from the Bangkok Post:

No one but the ultra rich are allowed to brew beer for sale in Thailand. The law is as unjust and outrageous as that. And no lawmaker has suffered the bitter taste of inequality in the brewing industry quite like Future Forward Party MP Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, who in January 2017 was arrested for brewing and selling his own craft beer… On Wednesday, Mr Taopiphop, 30, took Deputy Finance Minister Santi Prompat to task over his ministry’s regulation that stops brewing start-ups from exploiting the growing thirst for new flavours.


Finally, much to the amusement of British commentators, American pop superstar Taylor Swift has been writing about London, including a passing mention for pubs:

 

There are more links from Stan Hieronymus on Monday most weeks and from Alan McLeod on Thursday.

News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2019: ratings, lager, and lager ratings

Here’s everything that struck as particularly interesting in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from Carlsberg to Cambridge.

First, some news: those Redchurch rumblings from the other week are now confirmed – the brewery went into administration and is now under new ownership. This has prompted an interesting discussion about crowdfunding:


More news: it’s intriguing to hear that Curious is expanding. It’s a brewery you don’t hear talked about much by geeks like us – in fact, we’re not sure we’ve ever tried the beer – but it does turn up in a surprising number of pubs and restaurants.

Continue reading “News, nuggets and longreads 18 May 2019: ratings, lager, and lager ratings”

The Best Beer Writing of 2018, Sez Us

Beer magazines are in trouble and the Session is dead but, still, most weekends for the past year we’ve found between five and fifteen interesting things worth linking to.

From personal reflections to historical analysis, from portraits of pubs to profiles of people, the depth, breadth and quality of beer writing only seems to increase.

The following list is our personal selection of the very best, with a bias towards ‘proper’ blogs over paid outlets, and also towards voices we think deserve a signal boost.

We’ve omitted some great stuff that rather lost its power when it ceased to be topical, and there are some blogs which are best approached as bodies of work rather than through individual posts, so this is by no means everything we liked in the past year.

Continue reading “The Best Beer Writing of 2018, Sez Us”

British Beer

The Great British Beer Hunt —
Jester, Ernest, Olicana and Godiva
On a rail replacement bus.

Beer and queuing —
A British thing in a British stadium,
A beer at the British Museum.

There was lots of good beer here before —
Malty British beer, living fossils,
Standard British quaffing beer.

Iconic symbol of all that is great,
What is truly great,
About British beer —
A bottle of mild on the shelf.

British beer is not like its past.
British beer is best,
British beer is too strong —
This is where British beer is and will go,
Or you’ll upset the Queen.


This poem, and we use the word in the loosest sense, was put together from phrases found by searching the Tweets of people we follow for the phrase “British Beer”, and is our small contribution towards marking Beer Day Britain.

Tell Us About Your Local Beer Mixes

The cover BEER magazine #40

Our feature on traditional beer mixes — dog’s nose, lightplater, brown-split, and so on — is in the latest edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine.

We know we didn’t capture every single regional speciality or all of the many local names for the mixes we did list, and we were prepared for the steady trickle of “But what about…?” messages that have been coming our way on Twitter.

The thing is, this is the kind of stuff that people often know but don’t often write down — a general problem with studying the history of beer and pubs — and we’d love to get more of these on record.

So, with that in mind, here’s your chance to tell the world about  the beer mixes you know, and/or the names by which they go in your neck of the woods. Just comment below, specifying:

  • What the mix is called.
  • How it’s made.
  • And the specific pub, neighbourhood, town or region to which it belongs.

No variant is too minor, and duplicates are fine — useful, even.

It would be interesting to know, for example, whether simply ‘mixed’, which has come up a few times, always refers to mild and bitter. We guess it’s synonymous with half-and-half, and changes depending on which two beers (one light, one dark) that are most commonly mixed in any given region.

Everything We Wrote in March 2018: Devon, Michael Jackson, the Good Beer Guide

That was a pretty productive month with more posts than in any other month for some time, perhaps because the snow and cold kept us indoors near the books and the computer.

We started off gently with a bit of Pub Life, observing the dainty manoeuvres that take place around a communal pork pie which everyone wants to eat, but nobody wants to be seen to want to eat.


The topic of last month’s edition of The Session was ‘Hometown Glories’ so we separated into our constitutional parts to think about Walthamstow and Bridgwater respectively. It doesn’t look as if the host has put together a round-up of the entries yet but when he does, it’ll be here. (No pressure, Gareth.)


We flagged a new favourite book, 1949’s A Scrapbook of Inns, picking out some highlights, and then came back for another go at one of them in this post about the mysterious lost style ‘Ashburton Pop’:

There is a particular kind of beer brewed at Ashburton in Devonshire, very full of fixed air, and therefore known by the name of Ashburton pop, which is supposed to be as efficacious in consumptions as even the air of Devonshire itself…


BrewDog have been embroiled in some brouhaha every other day for the last month, it seems. We had some thoughts on the Pink IPA business, the reaction to which seemed like another win-win for the Scottish behemoth.


In a biggish post we looked back on what we learned about Devon’s beer scene while writing our Devon Life column for a year and a half:

If you think brown bitter is endangered, spend more time in Devon. Time after time we spoke to people who expressed mild frustration at the conservatism of the county – at the aversion to things pale, bitter or aromatic – and of the need to dial things back and down if they want to sell any of it in local pubs. There are too many potentially interesting beers that feel compromised, and too many brewers who know it.

This was one of our most popular posts for the month, though 99.9 per cent of the traffic was from one particular geographical region.


Women in work clothes smiling.
Women posing beside the bottling machine at Mitchells & Butlers bottling depot, Birmingham, c.1950.

For Internation Women’s Day we put together a gallery of images of women working in breweries and pubs from our collection of mid-20th-century in-house magazines.


One thing we weren’t very good at last month was tasting new beers and writing up the notes. We did get round to trying one of the beers suggested for us by our Patreon subscribers, though — De Molen Not For Sale Ale, about which we were rather enthusiastic.


While researching the IWD post (above) we came across several articles about malting and decided to put together a gallery of pictures from those, too.


Then came a cry of despair from the pub: what’s the point in breweries producing decent beer if it’s exactly the same as everybody else’s decent beer? What’s your thing?


Butting into somebody else’s mystery took us down an interesting line of research around Bristol’s mining history and take-away-only beerhouses. There’s a further update from the original poster in the comments on Instagram: “The Rock Tavern / Rock House appears around 1899 and disappears in the late 1960s. One of the entries is asterisked to indicate it was off-sales.”


There’s a whole lot of politics going on in and around SIBA, a lot of it rather hard to follow. We piped up to say that, actually, we understand why small brewers might not want medium-large brewers in their club. (Note: Neil from SIBA popped up on Twitter to point out that St Austell aren’t so much “muscling in” (our phrase) as trying to get back in, having been bumped out when they grew too big.)


Watney's Red -- detail from beer mat.

Nick Wheat acquired and uploaded a rare Watney’s training film from the launch of the reviled Red keg bitter in 1971 and kindly allowed us to share it. Do give it a watch if you have a spare 10-15 minutes, if only to marvel at the impenetrably plummy accents.


Last year CAMRA published our 2,500-word article on the origins of the Good Beer Guide, using only the words of those who were there. Now, so everyone can read it, it’s available here on the blog.


We weren’t expecting to like that beer, which we didn’t expect to find in such good condition, or in that pub, which we didn’t expect to find on that street, in that part of town. Surprises all round!


In 1983-84 Pitfield brewed a mild in support of the women of Greenham Common — was it the first ‘cause’ beer? Check out the comments for some other suggestions, and a telling off.


Illustration: Micheal Jackson peers from behind his glasses.

This was great fun to write, and a great example of where having two writers helps rather than hinders: someone asked us what Michael Jackson would have made of NEIPA so we invented two scholars and had them debate it using only his writings for ammo.


For a long time Orval was a beer alone; now, it has company, as a new style is in the process of being born. We’re calling it DHBA for now. And here’s a footnote via Twitter:


It was a long month which meant five rounds of News, Nuggets & Longreads, including one that was so full of good stuff we resorted to a list of bullet points at the end to fit it all in:

3 March 2018 — Norway, Nitrogen, Nanas

10 March 2018 — Lemondrop, BrewDog, Hardknott

17 March 2018 — London Drinkers & Bristol Dockers

24 March 2018 — Glitter, Ilford, AK

31 March 2018 — Moorhouse’s, Memel, Mellowness


There was also an email newsletter (sign up!), lots of Tweets, photos of pubs on Instagram, a bit of Facebook stuff, and a three-hour Reddit AMA.

If you think all this lot is worth anything please consider signing up to support us via Patreon (where there are also exclusive posts for $2+ subscribers) or maybe just buy us a pint via Ko-Fi.