Xmas Eve treat -- 1997 Thomas Hardy Ale and more...
Back in the early 1990s, I had the great pleasure of working as a writer and technical editor for Zymurgy Magazine and Brewer's Publications, for beer maven and super nice guy Charlie Papazian. Every so often, he'd dip into his amazing beer cellar and come out with a treat for us staffers, often to celebrate the arrival of a new beer book from the printing press. Old, old barley wines and Russian imperial stouts.....meads decades old.....amazing stuff.
I learned some important lessons from Charlie and these vertical tastings -- how quality strong beer changes with age, how to brew a beer that will survive aging, and how to force yourself to keep back a few bottles for a long time.
I haven't seen Charlie in over a decade, but still read the magazine. So last night, 2 neighbors here (both homebrewers and meadmakers) ventured through the awful weather to come by for prime rib, and some beer tasting.
We started with New Belgium 2 Below, always a bracing and powerful brew for cold weather, and followed with Odell's Isolation Ale and 2008 Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. All three are excellent beers, powerfully malty with strong hop balance. Using these beers as palate cleansers may seem extreme -- but the two old barley wines to follow were extreme beers.
A 2003 Gale's Prize Old Ale was a disappointment. It showed some tempering of the sweetness with 6 years of age, but it was completely flat. Not even a tickle of CO2. The sediment, though carefully decanted, was chunky and would not stay in place, and gave lots of autolyzed yeast notes. I picked up lots of oxidized sherry taste and aroma too; the beer was aged in Calvados casks. But some of this was likely real oxidation--the beer was bottled with a simple wine cork and non-sealed plastic cover, likely the cause of both the loss of all carbonation too. Gale's is no longer around, but we surely enjoyed this blast from the past, despite it's faults. Plain wine corks are a BAD idea for bottling a beer that is meant to be aged!
The 1997 Thomas Hardy Ale was superb! 12 years of undisturbed rest had mellowed and blended the flavors to perfection. Some sweetness was still there, but much replaced by a mixture of vinous fruit notes and butterscotch. There was no oxidation noticeable at all (thanks to the crown cap), and the yeast was a solid layer at the bottom. The head was perfect, 1/8 to 1/4 inch. It was like a moving art show down the sides of the tongue, with malt and hops alternating, then a flowery hop finish. An awesome brew. Tom Hardy too sweet for you? Just wait 12 years! (see photo)
And -- buy your Tom Hardy NOW. O'Hanlon's has ceased production of it, and 2008 is the last vintage. Buy a case and stick it back in a cool, dry place for a decade. The one we tasted was brewed before the 2003 buyout, so it was made by Eldridge Pope & Co.
We finished the evening with Chimay Red, served with Chimay Abbey cheese and non-salted crackers. And then took the prime rib out of the oven..... A delightful celebration of good food and incredible beer all around.
IIRC, the last few vintages of Gale's Prize Old Ale were somewhat notorious for their lack of carbonation when released (not that previous years' were "fizzy" or anything), so I don't think the cork is entirely to blame for the lack of carbonation or for other "off" flavors, since the Gale POA was fermented and aged in wood "infected" with brett- some of those off-flavors were part of the POA appeal (well, for some).
And, while "Gale's" the brewery is "no longer around", Fuller's bought their brands and has recently released the 2007 Vintage of the Prize Old Ale, in 500 ml. crown-capped bottles and it's easily available in most "good beer" US retail shops (and some shops still have older vintages of the Gale's corked bottles around, too - tho' I haven't seen the "Calvados" labeled ones around lately).
More on the beer and it's interesting move from Gale's to Fuller's at these two excellent UK beer sites:
The brand, Thomas Hardy Ale, is owned by the US importer, Phoenix Imports, Ltd. They actually bought the label, along with a few others, from the ironically re-named "Thomas Hardy Brewing Co." (formerly Eldridge Pope & Co.) and contracted with O'Hanlon to brew them .
Reports at the time (back last spring, I think) when O'Hanlon's announced they were dropping the brand noted that Phoenix was going to look for another UK brewer to make the beer with a few interested, but I don't think there's been much info since and it was generally agreed that there'd be a missed year at least.
Nice report Dan.
Handled and packeaged right, the stronger brews do indeed hold up and, often, improve with years on them. I have some commercial oldies stashed away that I occasionally sample (Hardy's, Gales, and Ballantine Burton) as well as home brews I've made over the years (oldest homebrews I have are some wee heavies and barleywines going back as far as 1994, and some sack mead going back further than that.
They are indeed a rare treat.