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 duty bound, to taste the ale to Charles’s health … The cavernous cellar in which stand the mysterious casks, the ivy-grown ruin overhead, the brawny men opening the family treasures and serving as rustic cup bearers to the guests, all made a thorough old-time picture.”
Later in the day Lord Campden and his family shared the birthday dinner with, again, 500 guests, the menu this time including a baron of beef weighing between 30 and 40 stone (560lb) and a whole roasted buck. There were also 21 joints of roast beef, 15 of pressed beef, 17 galantines of veal, 24 game pies, 14 large hams, 28 tongues, 15 turkeys, 8 boar’s heads, 15 rounds of beef, 10 legs and 14 shoulders of mutton, 72 roast fowls, 54 pheasants, 62 partridges, 20 plum puddings and so on, making a total of 1,000 dishes, plus a 120lb birthday cake.
The making of such extreme-aged cask ale was not, in fact, of the “very ancient origin” Lady Blanche claimed, since it almost certainly started only a century or so before she was writing. Nor did it last very much longer. Great houses such as Exton Hall had certainly brewed their own ale and beer for centuries, to supply the family and their servants and estate workers: probably most farmers in Britain, in fact, had domestic breweries. In 1870 there were more than 100,000 householders, large and small, paying the four shillings private brewing licence, meaning around one in a hundred homes brewed its own beer. However, in 1880, William Gladstone, then serving as both Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered the “Free Mash Tun” budget, which removed all tax on malt, but brought in a tax on the private brewers’ output for the first time: if the house they lived in was worth more than £15 a year, they had to pay full duty on all the beer they brewed.
That meant great families like the Noels and the Wynns now had to pay tax up front if they wanted to lay down several hundred gallons of sledgehammer brew for the new-born heir’s coming-of-age celebrations in a couple of decades’ time. Not surprisingly, the practice of making extreme-aged ale seems to have gone into sharp decline (as did private brewing itself: by 1895 the number of licensed home brewers had fallen more than 80 per cent from the 1870 figure, to just over 17,000).
Belvoir Castle (pronounced “beever”) in Leicestershire, home of the Dukes of Rutland, is a good illustration of the decline and disappearance of extreme-aged cask ale. Under the castle were two ale cellars and the “small beer cellar”. In the first half of the 19th century they were stuffed with casks: the smaller ale cellar, under the north terrace held getting on for 6,000 gallons in a dozen or so vessels each containing about 500 gallons. The larger cellar contained 28 casks, the biggest of which, named after Robert de Todeni, the Norman knight who was made Lord of Belvoir after William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066, held 1,300 gallons: 36 barrels. Inside this cask, 13 people were supposed to have dined. It bore a label, in the 1830s, with the date May 16 1815, the day the then Marquis of Granby, eldest son of the Duke, was born and the cask filled. It was tapped on his coming of age in 1836, when his father the Duke put on such an enormous party that “not a labourer or wayfaring man within seven miles of the castle went to bed sober that night.” Even so, visitors to the castle were still being offered a wine-glass of the marquis’s coming-of-age ale in 1837, a year later, when they were shown around the cellars, though the antiquarian Thomas Frognall Dibdin thought that “the strength and the flavour of this barley broth were, to my palate, either decomposed or passed away.”
That Marquis of Granby (whose great-grandfather was the Marquis who gave his name to so many pubs) became Duke of Rutland in 1857 and died unmarried in March 1888, to be succeeded as duke by his brother John. Just over a year later, in July 1889, the Daily Telegraph was reporting that the 24-hogshead “Robert de Todeni” and two other huge beer casks, with capacities of 13 hogsheads (702 gallons) and eight hogsheads respectively, “which have so long been the pride of the spacious cellar” at Belvoir Castle, had been “removed from their traditional crypts”, and “at the present time poor ‘Robert de Todeni’ is lying on its side near the stables of the Castle like a huge vessel stranded.”
The Telegraph wailed over the fact that
“the number of county families who continue to brew their own beer and to dispense it gratuitously to their tenants and farm-labourers is every year visibly diminishing. When so little is got out of the land as is the case nowadays, the landowner scarcely thinks it worthwhile to regale his poorer neighbours with eleemosynary* beer; and although in a few districts there might be some fine old English gentlemen who continue to follow the pleasant practice of tapping on the coming of age of the heir the hogshead of ‘humming ale’ which was brewed in the year when he was born, the custom has grown to one much more honoured in the breach than the observance.”
There were still extreme-aged brews being tapped. In January 1885 the coming-of-age of the Honourable Gustavus Hamilton Russell, eldest son of Viscount Boyne of Brancepeth Castle in County Durham was celebrated with an ox-roast and a dinner for 350 families. The contents of a 600-gallon cask of ale made in 1864, when young Gustavus was born, were distributed “gratuitously to all comers” with the beef, while the band of the Northumberland Hussars played “sweet music”.
In 1898, at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the seat of the Earl of Caernarvon (and the place where Downton Abbey is filmed, TV fans), a 500-gallon cask, made from well-seasoned oak grown on the Highclere estate, was commissioned from Sam Walter, a Newbury cooper. The finished cask, banded with massive brass hoops, bore a brass coronet and an inscription plate that said:
May Highclere Flourish.
This cask of ale, containing 500 gallons, was brewed in commemoration of
born November 7th, 1898.
Albert Streatfield, butler, Highclere Castle 1898
The ale itself was brewed in March 1899: March and October were the traditional months for brewing strong ale.
However, the First World War 15 years later, and the massive rises in taxes on beer in Britain that conflict brought in, seems to have finally knocked on the head the extreme-aged “young heir’s 21st birthday” ale. The last two such brews I have been able to find records for were both made just before the war. Late in 1910 or early in 1911 a special ale was brewed at Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham in Yorkshire, home of the Earl Fitzwilliam, for the birth of his eldest son Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, Viscount Milton. That ale was tapped at Lord Milton’s 21st birthday celebrations on December 31 1931, and drunk by guests who included more than 5,000 workmen, “a large number of whom were coalminers employed by Lord Fitzwilliam”.
Less than four years after Lord Milton’s birth, in May 1914, a son and heir was born to the Earl of Macclesfield. To mark the arrival of the new Viscount Parker, casks of strong ale were laid down in the cellars below the level of the moat at the family home, Shirburn Castle, in Oxfordshire, to be drunk when he came of age. At the celebrations, on Monday, May 6, 1935, tenants and employees of Lord Macclesfield from the villages of Shirburn and Stoke Talmage were entertained at supper. If – and presumably they did – they drank to Lord Parker’s health in his 21-year-old ale, I wonder how many were aware they were among the last enjoyers of a vanishing tradition.
When that tradition developed is surprisingly unclear. It seems to have taken a couple of centuries after the introduction of hopped beer to Britain in the 1400s before brewers realised they could brew beers that would last years, not just months. In 1577 the Essex clergyman William Harrison, in his Description of England, published as part of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, talked about the strong March ale, made at the end of the brewing season by the English nobility on their country estates. This March-brewed ale, he said was drunk when it was “commonly of a year old” and sometimes “of two years’ tunning or more”, though “this is not general.” Just over 125 years later, the envelope had been pushed out rather more: in 1703 the Guide to Gentlemen and Farmers for Brewing the Finest Malt Liquor declared that “many country gentlemen” “talk of, and magnify their stale Beer of 5, 10 or more years old” (“stale”, here, meaning mature, of course, and not “off”). For a hogshead (54 gallons) of strong March or October ale, the Guide suggested using 11 bushels of malt, which would have given an OG in the 1130s or 1140s.
It seems likely that the number of years that extremely strong ales survived to be drunk rose slowly as brewers on country estates grew more experienced in their making and handling. But there is little or no evidence of 21-year-old ales before the 1770s or 1780s. The huge coming-of-age celebrations that, in the 19th century, seem to have often featured extreme-aged ale certainly took place in the 18th century as well, but there appear to be no record of them being accompanied by the drinking of ale brewed 21 years earlier at the birth of the young heir. The festivities at the coming of age in 1770 of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, grandfather to the Sir Watkin who had his own 21st birthday in 1841, were even more lavish than the later baronet’s, with 15,000 people entertained at Wynnstay and entire herds and flocks consumed: 30 bullocks, 50 calves, 80 sheep, 18 lambs, 300 chickens, 37 turkeys, 60 barrels of oysters, 421lb of salmon, 50 bushels of potatoes, to name just part of the refreshments. The drinks bill included 70 hogsheads of ale, plus one large cask of ale containing 26 hogsheads. But nowhere is it recorded if that last huge 432-gallon cask contained extreme-aged ale.
A book published in 1876, Round About Bradford, by William Cudworth, claimed that “there were persons living thirty years ago [ie 1846] who could remember the glorious doings” when “John Tempest the young squire” of Tong Hall, on the outskirts of the town [he was the oldest son of the third son of Sir George Temple, second baronet, but heir presumptive to the baronetcy when he was born] came of age, which would have been in 1771: “how oxen were roasted whole; how the ale brewed on the day he was born was brought out in hogsheads and broached on the lawn; and how the whole festivities were wound up by a foot race of Amazons for a new holland smock which was gallantly won by Peg Mitchell.” If this was true – and the alleged witnesses were allegedly remembering something they allegedly saw 74 years earlier – it would make the Tong Hall celebrations the earlier example of extreme-aged ale I have found, and suggest that such ales were being brewed in the 1750s.
The earliest eye-witness (or tongue-witness) account of extreme-aged cask ale comes from the actor-manager John Bernard, who wrote in 1830 about a visit he made around 1793/94 to Mount Edgcumbe House, close by Plymouth Sound, home of the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, in what is now Cornwall but was then Devon. The earl pressed Bernard and his companions
to taste the family ale, for which Mount Edgecombe [sic] enjoyed some celebrity. It had been brewed on the birth day of Lord Valletort [the earl's eldest son, born September 13 1764] , and was not broached till he came of age [ie in 1785]: it was more mild than the eulogised liquor of Boniface, but equally potent. Jefferson incautiously smacking his lips after emptying his glass induced his Lordship to fill it again, and this being a precedent not to be overruled in regard to ourselves, we all found it a difficult matter to pursue our path to the tavern with that due preservation of the perpendicular which people usually maintain before dinner.
Bernard and his friends were thus drinking ale that was at least 29 years old, and had been first tapped at least eight years earlier. The tradition was kept up at Mount Edgcumbe House for at least three more generations: when the great-grandson of Bernard’s Viscount Valletort came of age in August 1886, the Hampshire Advertiser recorded that “At the dinner to the tenantry ale was drunk which was brewed in October twenty-one years ago [in 1865], in celebration of Lord Valletort’s birth. This ale had been kept in a two-hundred-gallon cask, and refreshed every seven years with new hops.”
Adding fresh hops every seven years was, presumably, a trick the staff at Mount Edgcumbe House had learnt between 1785 and 1865 to keep super-aged ale in form. Another trick was topping up the cask of ale, on the solera system. An article written in 1899 asserted that it was still
a common thing in England to make a large brew of beer when the heir to an estate is born. This is stored in casks, the loss by evaporation being supplied, from time to time, by adding fresh beer. When the heir reaches his majority, the beer is dispensed to the guests at the coming of age rejoicings
From the start of the 19th century, references to coming-of-age ale being drunk begin to crop up, if not regularly, at least often enough to show that such brews were not totally unusual. When an eldest son was born to the Earl of Berkeley (the man who gave his name to the Berkeley Hunt of cockney rhyming slang notoriety) in December 1786, for example, a cask containing four hogsheads of special brew was filled at the family seat, Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, and tapped 21 years later, in 1807, at a celebration in the Great Hall at the castle. The party was attended by the Duke of Clarence (later William IV), among many others, and as well as the aged ale it featured a 21-gun salute fired from the castle walls, 5,000 coloured lamps and, if the ale was not enough, “two immense bowls of Punch, each containing twenty gallons”.
Similarly when a son and heir, the magnificently monikered Richard Plantagenet Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville, Viscount Temple, was born to the Marquess of Buckingham at Stowe House in February 1797, vast casks in the cellars were again filled with ale in anticipation of his coming of age 21 years later. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, who saw the “monstrous” casks in 1815 or 1816, two years or so before they were broached at a celebration attended by “a great concourse of the first nobility”, described them as “a regiment of barrels only exceeded in grenadier height by those which I saw at Heidelberg in 1818″.
The minor gentry were also laying down ales intended for super-ageing. When Sir John Davie, of Creedy House, near Crediton, Devon, was 21 in March 1819, “three fat oxen and 15 hundred shilling loaves were distributed to the poor. All the tenantry were hospitably entertained at the mansion and hogsheads of ale born on the birth-day of the Baronet were tapped, for the first time, in honour of the day.”
In February 1845, the celebrations for the coming-of-age of the Marquess of Worcester, eldest son of the Duke of Beaufort, which took place at the assembly rooms in Swansea, included a song requesting that
In each happy heart this day may memory keep alive
When with Old Ale brewed in ’24 we drank in ’45!
Sir Henry Monson de la Poer Beresford-Peirse and his bride the Lady Adelaide returned from their continental wedding tour early in 1874 to their home, Bedale Hall, North Yorkshire, and in June a grand festival was held to mark Sir Henry’s formal installation as landlord of the Bedale Estates. At the dinner were two casks that had been filled with 100 gallons of “prime ale” when Sir Henry was born in September 1850, and which had remained in the cellars at Bedale Hall since then. The York Herald remarked that “the mouldy appearance of the exterior” of the casks “sufficed to show their ‘antiquity’, and to connoisseurs the quality of the ‘nut-brown’ ale within, which was afterwards handed round the table, and enjoyed in all its pungency.”
One of the unique elements of extreme-aged cask ale is that it was a style that could not have developed in a commercial environment. Storing ale or beer on a large scale was developed by porter brewers in the mid-18th century, and even the biggest casks at Belvoir Castle or Stowe House were dwarfed by the vast vats used by the London porter brewers, such as Barclay Perkins, where the largest stood 40 feet tall, and measured 40 feet across at the widest part, giving a capacity of 3,300 barrels. But those vats were used to age maturing porter for only a year or two. Longer-aged ale was very occasionally found for sale: the Times in November 1859, for example, had an advertisement from a man in Clapham addressed to “brewers and others” for “about 65 barrels of three-year-old ale, perfectly sound and in brilliant condition. Has been moved three times in the past three months and each time has gone perfectly bright of its own according in a few days.” The price was only 23 shillings a barrel, however, less even than fresh table ale.
On the other hand, in February 1863 the Bristol Mercury carried an ad for “a vat of 200 barrels of very superior old ale, vatted in 1857, to be sold at 48s per barrel, for cash.” Assuming this was brewed in October 1857 it was then five years and three months old. West Country drinkers were famous was their preference for old ale: a writer in the Journal of the Society of Arts in 1890 declared that “In the West of England and in Belgium this fashion of drinking old ale has not yet died out.” One of the few other commercial aged ales I have been able to find mention of, however, was from York, where, at a clearance sale at the Old Bird-In-Hand Hotel, Bootham in October 1878, the departing landlord sold his complete brewing plant, horses, carriages, poultry, pigeons, and “One Puncheon of Fine 7 years’ old STRONG ALE, in splendid condition” – a puncheon, in beer brewing, was a cask with a capacity of 72 gallons, equal to two barrels.
All of these, however, even the oldest commercial aged cask ales, were beardless youths compared to the ancient keeping ales made by the gentry and aristocracy in anticipation of their sons’ coming-of-age celebrations. No commercial brewer could afford to keep an ale maturing for two decades. A nobleman such as the Duke of Portland, however, had the wealth to pay for the raw materials, the huge cellars in which to store a long-life ale undisturbed, the confidence to undertake a venture that would not pay off for more than two decades, and a substantial brewing operation in existence, to supply his household staff and estate workers with what was still a necessity, daily beer and ale. Sometimes a hundred sat down to dine in the servants’ hall at the Duke’s home, Welbeck Abbey, near Worksop, North Nottinghamshire in the 1850s, and they were supplied with drink by a beer barrel on wheels that ran up and down the table. In 1879, servants at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, home of the Dukes of Sutherland, were allowed four pints a day for men and two for women. That implies the Welbeck Abbey brewery, assuming the servants there received the same allowance, was producing perhaps seven barrels a week, as a minimum. It would not be hard to switch that production for one week into making a super-strong ale for laying down, as happened at Welbeck in 1802, when the fourth Duke of Portland’s second son, Lord George Bentinck, was born. One of many enormous casks in the Welbeck Abbey cellars was filled with ale, and Lord George’s name and date of birth painted on it, ready for the contents to be given away to the duke’s workers and tenants when Lord George came of age. (Though in this case, it appears, Lord George’s ale was never given away, and remained in the cellars even after his death in 1848.)
There was, of course, a massive element of showing off involved in the production of such super-aged ales, and in the whole roast-ox, dinner-for-500 theatricals of an aristocratic coming-of-age, as well as a sense that this was part of the idea of noblesse oblige, the rich man in his castle’s obligation to give the poor man at his gate a jolly good party occasionally. A coming-of-age celebration, complete with 21-year-old ale, features in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, written in 1859 but set in 1799. It is July, and everyone in the locality, farmers, farm workers and their families, has been invited to the celebrations for the 21st birthday of the “young Squire”, Captain Arthur Donnithorne, at Donnithorne Chase. The men are particularly keen:
“… it is a time of leisure on the farm, that pause between hay and corn-harvest, and so the farmers and labourers in Hayslope and Broxton thought the captain did well to come of age just then, when they could give their undivided minds to the flavour of the great cask of ale which had been brewed the autumn after ‘the heir’ was born, and was to be tapped on his twenty-first birthday.”
What was that flavour? According to the Illustrated News, reporting in February 1857 on “Tapping the barrel of Lincoln Ale”, which took place at the Duke of Newcastle’s home, Cumber Park, not far from Welbeck Abbey at the celebrations for the coming-of-age of his eldest son the Earl of Lincoln (celebrations delayed two years because of the Crimean War), the ale brewed when the earl was born had been “placed in a butt and ceremoniously deposited in the cellars” at Clumber, then “carefully attended to; and being now twenty-three years old, it resembles wine.” Extreme-aged ale was certainly very strong: in 1897, during a hearing by the Home Office committee on beer materials, the conversation turned to aged ales, and the committee chairman, Sidney Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, who was then 54, began reminiscing:
“Of course, as we are all aware, the old custom was to have so many casks of beer brewed when the eldest son was born and it was not opened till he came of age … that beer was of a very intoxicating nature by the time it was used. Of course, it was made very strong: you can concentrate it … I am not sure that the 21-years-old ale was a very wholesome drink when the 21 years was passed. It was extremely intoxicating?” Witness [Andrew Mansell, a farmer and barley-grower from Shifnall in Shropshire]: “But, of course, you would take it accordingly. You would drink such ale in champagne glasses; you would not drink it like beer.”
Today, even the vatted year-old ales that were popular in the Bristol area up to the Second World War are no longer, as far as I know, being made: accountants won’t stand for expenditure on raw materials and labour now for a return only in 12 months or more. Twenty-one years of waiting for your money … no. But if anyone feels inspired to make a brew they’re intending keeping in cask (not bottle) until 2032, please get in touch, and I promise to try to be around then to help drink it.
* Look it up.