For my birthday this year, my long suffering yet beer-friendly wife brought me a beer that was brewed and bottled the same year I was! Or something. Anyway, for those who aren’t aware of such beer-nerdy things, Thomas Hardy’s ale is something of an icon in the world of beer. Originally brewed due to the refurbishment of a pub and to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of the eponymous author, this is a strong barley-wine style beer of extremely high collectible value.
More akin to a fine brandy than a beer, and reputed to age up to 25 years, this 34 year old example was always going to be interesting.
I opted to share it with some very close beer-loving friends; Phil, Jamie, and Barry (and, of course, my wife Alexandra). We had warmed up on Barry’s home brewed Irish Red ale, and his Oatmeal stout. We decided then to begin with a Thomas Hardy’s ale from 2005, followed by 2004, then 2003, and finally the 1975 from the original brewers, Eldridge Pope.
The 2005 was sharp, and somewhat candied, with a slightly brandy-like bite to it. The 2004 was smooth, mellow, and a slow sipping joy. The 2003 was most people’s favourite, with so much richness – it reminded me of a brandy-soaked christmas cake. But then came time for the main event. The tiny little 180ml nip bottle, the contents of which had been so constrained since 1975. I have to admit, I did not have high hopes.
It poured a beautiful mahogany brown, shot through with ruby red highlights against the stormy light from outside the windows. The aroma was of raisins, fine cigar smoke, and wood – similar to an old chest long misplaced in an attic somewhere. All that was missing was a hint of mothballs, and the mind conjured that up unbidden anyway!
The first sip was disappointing. The autolysis I had expected to dominate was either not present, or had mutated far beyond the usual marmite-style flavour as to be unrecognisable as such. Musty flavours permeated, but the rich, raisiny, port-like quality of the newer batches was there yet, hidden behind the dust of ages. Phil suggested that some swirling had opened his up, and that it may benefit from breathing for a tad. I left mine for an hour or so, until the others had finished and left, and came back to it.
As I sup the last bit now, it really has opened up. Age has not damaged this beer as much as I’d have expected, though I’d doubt it would benefit from any further aging. A sweetness remains, amazingly, gentle, and fruity, against the nutty, woody character which dominates. Notes of cherries are present, as well as dried figs. The finish is ever so slightly sharp and bitter, but with a gentle tannic dustyness.
Wow, what an experience. Thirty four year old beer. I feel privileged to have tasted it, and humbled before the craftsmanship of the brewer who made it.
What a day!
There are some more photos online here.