Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House

“This is a basement under the angle between Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street. It is not trying to be Irish; it just is. A big, bare room with a central zinc-topped bar; no concession to comfort, but on the other hand some of the best draught Guinness in London… It has surely got the fairies on it, though mentioning fairies in this rough, shabby, real place you might get some strange looks.”

Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House, in Nairn’s London, 1966.

(NB. before it was Irish, it was German…)

6 thoughts on “Ian Nairn on Ward’s Irish House”

  1. I wonder if draft Guinness tasted better then. I’d think not unless, i) it was not pasteurized for the English market at the time, ii) it was all-malt except possibly for the roast barley element. Those are two important ifs though.

    I first had draft Guinness in the 1970’s and it was as bland (IMO) as it is today. I cannot understand, even though the 1960’s was very different to today’s world, that no one objected when naturally conditioned draught Guinness was taken off the market. Maybe the answer is the changes were incremental, flaked barley coming in, maybe roast barley to, pasteurization. Or maybe the 1966 version in London was essentially like today’s, which I incline to think.

    Gary

    1. Gary — there’s some more on this subject here, I think from the days before you were a regular visitor.

  2. Thanks very much for that, I had not known of it, indeed.

    Well. Some observations:

    1) Draft Guinness in Ireland was definitely unpasteurized until about 1990. Michael Jackson wrote about this, there can be no doubt. I am not sure though what the state of play was in England in ’66.

    2) By the 70’s, the export was the same one you get in England today and still in North America. I have had it many times in both places. I only had it once in Ireland, at the airport, and it was exactly like the others – dull. I have had it here from clean pipes and in that form it is just decent but not more IMO.

    3) None of your interlocutors in the 2012 discussion mentioned when flaked barley, an adjunct, came in. I believe it was some time in the 70’s. Roast barley vs. roast malt likely would make a difference to the palate too, but let’s set that aside. If you have an all-malt drink (but for the colouring agent), that will be richer than one which is heavy on adjunct. I’d guess 1960’s draft Guinness, pasteurized or not, was all-malt in this sense and that is why the drink had a following. Once the adjunct part came in, that would have lightened the taste and IMO the flaked barley is what gives it the medicinal taste one commenter noted, in FES yet (grrr).

    And so, one does a quiet scream for a drink that had to be, we know from historical recipes, a world-beater but is today a shadow of them years. As Ron had noted, even the saving grace of bottle-conditioned extra stout was finally withdrawn and another commenter noted the puzzle of the extra cold version when it came in. I don’t know what is wrong with these big concerns. Only the behemoth that owns Urquell really gets it and it is a marvel that they do, perhaps it is because the true palate lasted so long that it was in a sense too late to change it. Or maybe they just get it. Good for them and the fact is any version of Urquell if fresh is miles ahead in palate of any version I know of Guinness today, with a partial exception for hard to find, bottled only FES. (To me Special Export is completely ordinary today, unlike 10 years ago).

    Gary

    1. FES is in supermarkets here. It’s OK. Well, it’s better than OK, but not much.

      Not much to say about the “it’s all keg – get me a Guinness” mentality, except that it definitely existed – growing up in the 70s, the superiority of Guinness was one of the things we aspiring real ale drinkers picked up. Being a pedant even then, I did think it was odd, given that Guinness didn’t appear to be ‘real'; it was one of the questions I put to Richard Boston in… er… a long and (I thought) wittily amusing letter I sent him c/o the Guardian, hand-written on lined paper. (I would love to be able to complete that sentence with “in an interview for my school magazine, which I’ve kept in this box just here”, but alas, no.) Needless to say, he never replied.

  3. That’s interesting Phil, perhaps Boston was getting bored with beer by then. You raised good questions though. In many ways, the witchy APA is the modern analogue to Guinness in that time, as lager was too, i.e., viz. bitter. Once you have something as various and (at its best) worldbeating as English bitter, in place for son long, people seem blasé about it and look for new things as the fernier cri. Only the French had the confidence with their various food and beverage products to resist this. Partial exception for cognac, which has lost a lot to malt whisky, but cognac is still on the market in various qualities and as good as ever. It would never be in danger of disappearing as real ale was. The English need to recover confidence about their best products. The Scots can teach them a lesson here with malt whisky. On the other hand, English insouciance, as Jackson would have put it, is a strong suit too.

  4. So sorry, it’s early, corrections:

    “… English bitter, in place for so long, people seem blasé about it and look for new things as the dernier cri”.

Comments are closed.