The lost art of extreme-aged cask ale

In September 1841 the “magnificent mansion” of Wynnstay, near Wrexham in North Wales, saw four days of celebration to mark the coming-of-age of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. On the last day, 500 people, including Sir Watkin’s uncles the Duke of Northumberland and the Earl of Powis, sat down to dine in a 7,500-square-feet pavilion, 20 feet high, erected in the garden. The menu included rounds and sirloins of beef, shoulders and legs of lamb, haunches of venison, roast and boiled chickens, grouse, partridges, jugged hare, veal, hams, salmon, carp, tench, lobster salad, tongues, jellies, blancmanges and pastries, “unlimited” wines including claret, hock, champagne and port – and “probably the greatest treat”, according to the local newspaper, the Shropshire Conservative, “an abundant supply of rare old ale, brewed at the birth of the present Sir Watkin Wynn”, that is, 21 years earlier, in 1820, “when 200 bushels of malt were brewed to fill the noble barrel out of which the company were supplied with their invigorating potations.” Sir Watkin, the sixth baronet, and his cellarer, Mr Martin, who had been at Wynnstay for nearly half a century, drank the first jug of 21-year-old ale between them, and were evidently quickly joined by the Duke and Earl: “Those highest in rank in the company appeared to enjoy the noble liquor with the utmost relish,” the Shropshire Conservative said.

Sir Watkin’s extreme-aged ale, which even at a (Shropshire) conservative estimate of 16 bushels to the barrel, giving an enormous 1230 original gravity, and totalling a dozen or so barrels, was far from a one-off: there is evidence from the 18th century to just before the First World War of many similar massive brews being made and laid down for a couple of decades before being broached.

Continue reading The lost art of extreme-aged cask ale

The gastropub is dead – official

The gastropub is no more – its death officially declared this week by the Good Food Guide, which has banned the term from the pages of its 2012 edition and all subsequent editions.

According to the Independent on Sunday, quoting Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor for the guide,

the term had become a byword for an establishment’s ambitions and, at a time when pubs have been hit hard by the recession, this inflexible attitude was becoming a thing of the past. “Our feeling with the gastropub was that it was a bit of a bandwagon that a lot of people have jumped on to. A lot of chains have taken that gastropub style. I think customers are getting bored with it. Pubs have to be socially diverse, they have to offer many things whether you pop in for a drink and a snack or you want a proper meal. Pubs realise that your local business is very important, as is hospitality. It’s getting away from being like a restaurant and going back to being a pub.”

The Eagle: self-conscious

Well, yes. My feeling about the Eagle in Clerkenwell, London, generally accepted as the first “gastropub” when it opened exactly 20 years ago, and which effectively defined the “gastropub vibe” of blackboard menus, bare floors, non-matching furniture and ostensibly unfussed food, was that it was always much more like a restaurant that wouldn’t actually object if you only wanted a drink, rather than a pub with food.

The Eagle worked, however, in large part because of its location, just up from the then-offices of the Guardian newspaper: it was surrounded by people who loved the gastropub’s air of self-conscious “unpretention”, and couldn’t recognise the self-conscious part. The take-off of the concept was slow: the Oxford English Dictionary only records the actual word “gastropub” from 1996, and the vast Lexis-Nexis database doesn’t find any examples in magazines or newspapers until the following year, six years after the Eagle had landed. But the Farringdon Road original eventually spawned literally thousands of imitators: according to the Independent there were 5,000 “gastropubs” in the UK by 2003, one in 12 of the nation’s pub stock. The next year, 2004, Marks & Spencer launched a “Gastropub” ready meals range of “modern British classics”: proof, perhaps, that the term “gastropub” had by then jumped the shark.

However the arrival of the gastropub in the 1990s raised everybody’s expectations about the food that pubs could and should be expected to supply: for those of you too young to remember what “pub food” was like in the 1970s and 1980s (let alone before), the word “grim” barely covers it. You couldn’t be certain if you would find any food, of any sort, on sale in a strange pub, certainly after the lunchtime session, and if there was food it was likely to be dire. The OED’s first recorded mention of the term gastropub actually comes from the London Evening Standard, which said, in April 1996: Continue reading The gastropub is dead – official