How to go a-wassailing

Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee,
Drink to thee, drink to thee,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

The Wassailing Song

I am old enough to remember life before central heating, dears, when in December and January the Belling bed warmer, like a pink flying saucer, was our weapon against freezing sheets, and Jack Frost drew ice-portraits on the inside of the bedroom windows. But at least the trains and buses, when they ran, were heated: there’s a terrific (and too little known) Charles Dickens short story called The Holly Tree where he describes a traveller by horsedrawn coach setting out from the Peacock inn in late December London, early in the 19th century, when the weather was so bad there were blocks of ice in the Thames. Once the passenger was inside the coach, the ostlers piled straw around him up to his waist, as insulation, before sending him off north, a human haybox.

When Dickens’s traveller had arrived at the Peacock he “found everybody drinking hot purl, in self-preservation” – our predecessors being of the sensible opinion that no matter how blazing the fire you might be standing before, on a cold night there was still a requirement to warm the insides as well as the outsides. Purl was ale heated until almost boiling (never actually boil any hopped drink, the bitterness is likely to be  ramped up to an extremely unpleasant level) with a shot of gin, generally in the ration of 10 parts ale to one part spirits, and flavourings of the maker’s choice: usually something bitter, such as Roman wormwood (less powerful than “standard” wormwood), with perhaps orange peel, ginger and, by the middle of the 19th century at least, sugar.

Purl was just one of a family of flavoured, frequently hot ale drinks that kept Britons warm before central heating. Another was Wassail, taking its name from the medieval English drinkers’ salutation wæs hæil, “be healthy” or “be fortunate”. Wassail became particularly associated with the celebrations on Christmas Eve, Twelfth Night and New Year’s Eve, and better-off homes would have special wassail bowls from which the prepared drink was served. Jesus College, Oxford owns a huge silver-gilt Wassail bowl with a capacity of ten gallons, presented by Sir Watkyn Williams Wynn, the Welsh Jacobite politician, in 1732. This is the Jesus recipe for Wassail, in 1835 at least:

Continue reading How to go a-wassailing

Interpreting Victorian beer ads

Only a particularly sad beer history geek – that is to say, me – would greet the excellent news that Fuller’s, the Chiswick brewer, has released a reproduction of a 7.5 per cent 19th century brew under the name Past Masters XX Ale with the cry: “Hang on, that’s not an XX – it’s too strong.” OMG, FST XX NTST. So I was relieved that Ron Pattinson, who was heavily involved in helping Fuller’s produce this new-old beer, the first in what is apparently planned to be a series of absolutely fascinating journeys back into the Griffin brewery’s brewing books, calls it an XX(K). Because an XXK is exactly what it sounds like: 1065 to 1075 or so OG, which would have sold at one shilling and sixpence a gallon wholesale, and seven pence a (quart) pot, at a time when actual proper XX was selling for four pence a pot. (And if that doesn’t sound much – a mere two pence a pint – according to this extremely useful site, 2d in 1890 is the equivalent, in average earnings, to £4.10 today.)

Victorian brewers in Britain had a fairly rigid hierarchy of beers in terms of gravity and price: each of the three main styles, ale, pale ale/bitter and porter/stout, would be sold at one of five or six “price points”, the price per gallon dictated by the original gravity. Not every brewer sold every beer at every price-point, but brewers sold, normally, nine to 12 different beers. The remarkable lack of inflation in Victorian Britain also meant that ales and beers kept the same retail prices from the 1840s through to the rises in tax that began with the Boer War.

Many of the names brewers gave the different brews were fairly standard: ales (remember, we’re talking about a time when ale was still different from beer, being less hoppy, and usually sold “mild”, that is, unaged) were almost always given an X designation, the more X’s, obviously, the stronger the ale. A light one shilling (1s) a gallon bitter ale was almost always called AK. Why? After 25 years pondering this question, I still have no good idea. The big London brewers all seem to have indicated their versions of Burton Ales with the letter K, and Ron Pattinson has amassed good evidence for this meaning “keeping”. But “K” can’t mean “keeping” in AK, because AK wasn’t a keeping beer. In addition, “K” can’t be taken to mean solely the Burton Ale style, or a keeping beer: other, smaller London brewers than the really big ones, as we shall see shortly, used “KKK” to indicate, for example, a pale ale, not a Burton Ale.

Putting that problem aside for a moment, here’s a table that should enable you to work out from any Victorian beer advertisement what the likely OG was of any beer in it, and also the likely retail price (if the ad only gives the price per firkin, or nine-gallon cask, double it to get the price per kilderkin, of course): Continue reading Interpreting Victorian beer ads

So what beers does a seven-star hotel serve?


The Burj Al Arab – the second-tallest hotel in the world, and deliberately designed to be an architectural icon in the same world-class league as the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House – is a spectacular place to take afternoon tea. The arrogant, curving exterior, more than a thousand feet tall, demands that you admit you’ve never seen any building like it. The blingtastic interior is a triumph of money over taste, with 20-feet-high aquaria in the lobby, gold leaf on almost every surface, fancy fountains and waterfalls. Book a table in the Skyview Bar, 27 floors up, just below the helipad, about half an hour before sunset. To the east you’ll see out of the ceiling-to-floor windows the Burj Khalifa, half a mile high from tip to sandal-sole, flare orange-gold as it catches the descending sun’s rays. Look west, and the Palm Jumeirah, a three-mile-wide collection of artificial islands covered in expensive homes and more expensive hotels, is gunmetal dark against the gleaming deep turquoise of the early evening Arabian Gulf.

Afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab

The Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, calls itself a “seven-star hotel”, though official designations only go up to five stars. Its labours in attempting to give guests a seven-star experience include having the names of everyone who books afternoon tea (at £70 a head – though to be fair this is only a little more than the Ritz in London charges for the same experience, and a much poorer view) mapped to a specific table, and that map then memorised by the staff, so that even the smiling Filipina who comes to top up your Darjeeling will address you by name. The food was, as it should be, excellent: the slice of pastry-wrapped salmon served before the sandwiches and pastries came up on a Burj Al Arab-shaped cakestand was perhaps the most perfectly cooked fish I have eaten, whipped from the chef’s domain and arriving on my plate at exactly the correct second. I have rarely enjoyed teatime food more: as both a gastronomic experience and hotel theatre, it gave value for every dirham.

But as you politely refuse the last proffered chocolate, lest you do a Mr Creosote, there is the opportunity to finish with a flourish: how about a beer at the bar itself, as the sun’s final gleam disappears from the darkening sky somewhere out over Qatar? The chance to sip something foaming and hoppy on a barstool 660 feet above the sea probably won’t return for a long time. What acme of the brewer’s art does the Burj Al Arab offer its seven-star customers? Continue reading So what beers does a seven-star hotel serve?