In the autumn of 1775, Henry Thrale, owner of one of the biggest porter breweries in London, took his family on a trip across the English Channel to Paris. With them went Dr Samuel Johnson, the dictionary-writer and author, and one of the great literary figures of 18th-century England, who had been good friends with Thrale and his wife Hester for 10 years. In Paris the Thrales and Johnson toured the sights, visited palaces, churches and gardens, and educated themselves with a trip to a manufacturer of mirrors. Henry Thrale also called in on Paris’s biggest brewer, a man called Antoine-Joseph Santerre, taking Johnson with him.
Johnson’s notes of the visit say that Santerre’s Hortensia brewery, in the Rue de Reuilly, part of the Faubourg St Antoine, although the largest of 17 brewing establishments in the city, brewed just 4,000 barrels a year. This was barely a 20th of the annual output at the time of Thrale’s own Anchor brewery in Southwark. Johnson also recorded that Santerre made his own malt, and used about as much malt per barrel as Thrale did; and he sold his beer for the same price as Thrale, though he paid no malt tax, and only half as much beer tax.
Johnson – an oak-hard Tory, who had recently produced a pamphlet attacking the American colonists for their rebelliousness against the British crown – would have been horrified to learn that he was shaking hands with a man who, 14 years later, would aid the mobs of the Faubourg St Antoine in their successful assault of July 14 on the Bastille, and who, four and a half years after that, would escort the King of France, Louis XVI, from his prison to the guillotine.
Johnson was five years dead when the French Revolution broke out, but Hester Thrale remembered Santerre, and suggested after the Parisian brewer became notorious that he had become a revolutionary because of an incident that happened around the time the Thrales were in Paris. A fine horse belonging to Santerre got in the way of a royal procession and an officer in the army drew out his pistol and shot the animal dead, an act that, according to Hester, filled Santerre with anger.