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.

In 1873, Lady Blanche Noel, daughter of the Earl of Gainsborough, wrote about the 21st birthday celebrations of her eldest brother Charles, Viscount Campden, two years earlier at the family home, Exton Hall, Rutland. “The universal custom in England of brewing a large quantity of the very best ale the year an heir is born and keeping it untouched until the day he becomes of age, when the cask is broached and distributed in prudently moderate quantities to the guests and tenants, is of very ancient origin and is most religiously adhered to,” she said. On the day of Lord Campden’s birthday,

“Directly after breakfast we went up to the old hall to see the gigantic cask of twenty one years’ old ale opened and, as in du