Beer Matters

Strong Stuff

The other day I opened one of my bottles of Thomas Hardy’s Ale. For those not familiar with it, this beer was first produced by Eldridge Pope (the Dorchester brewery, now no longer brewing) in the mid 70s. It was strong, about 11% ABV, and sold in numbered “nip” bottles (1/3 pint) with the recommendation that it would keep for at least 25 years. I drank a fairly youthful one the night my elder son was born in 1977 and he and I shared the one I bought to replace it on his 18th birthday. Both, as I recall, were perfectly acceptable.

However, recent information from that fount of all wisdom Ringing Chat suggested that the 25 year “best before” date was perhaps a little optimistic. So in some trepidation I broached one of the four bottles (1987 vintage) that I’ve been keeping for the last 20 years and poured it carefully into a balloon glass. It was dark brown, flat and lifeless. When I lifted it to my nose there was a powerful aroma of Marmite. It tasted tired and, well, like Marmite. It wasn’t entirely wasted though - I added it to the gravy we had with our roast beef that night. The following day I opened another. It was just the same. So, if you’ve got any bottles aged 5 to 10 years, drink them soon. If you’ve got any over 20 years old, you have my sympathy. Incidentally it’s still being brewed by O’Hanlons.

In the 70s Thomas Hardy was certainly, as claimed on the label, the “strongest beer in Britain” and possibly the second strongest in the world, after EKU Kulminator Urtyp Hell (from Kilmbach, Germany, over 13%). Since then exceptionally strong beers have become more commonplace and several British micros now produce draught beers at 10% plus. At the Wallington Beer Festival * I finished up with a half of something that was 11% and it was rather good, although I wouldn’t want to drink a lot of it, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of it (and Googling “British beer 11%” doesn’t help). **

But when it comes to pushing the limits of what constitutes beer, the American “craft brewers” are in a league of their own. In 1999 the Boston Beer Company which trades under the Samuel Adams label produced a 20%+ beer called Millennium, followed in 2002 by an even stronger brew called Utopias. The 2007 version, brewed with four varieties of “noble” Bavarian hops, four malts and several yeasts including a Champagne yeast and aged in oak, weighs in at 25.6% and is said to be comparable with a fine cognac or vintage port. And it retails at upwards of $100 a bottle. I don’t suppose the Ringing World would be prepared to make a small investment so I can tell you all what it tastes like? (No, I thought not).

* Which reminds me - belated congratulations to Old PH who around that time sank his 20,000th (recorded) pint. I have to admire the way he logs each pint meticulously in tiny, neat handwriting, even minutes before closing time at a beer festival. Just in case you were wondering, I’m well past that milestone myself (I do have a few years’ head start). I don’t keep records but, at a very rough estimate, I must be around the 35,000 mark.

** I finally remembered (too late for publication) it was Abbeydale Last Rites.

This is the first Beer Matters for a few months, for which I apologise if anyone has missed it, and some time has elapsed since Geoff Dodd issued his challenge to review all the beers with methods named after them. Yes, I accept, but Geoff missed a few (a few minutes’ searching of the CC Methods Collection turned up Bass, Black Cat and Riggwelter) so it may take a while, especially if people keep naming new beer methods (Old Peculier D Major and Enoch’s Hammer S Royal). And do I count methods named after places that also happen to be the names of breweries (Butcombe, Ringwood)?

The range of bottled beers in supermarkets continues to proliferate. I don’t propose to bore you with any more articles full of tasting notes but I may be posting reviews on my website from time to time. And if you don’t like the ales on the shelves at Tesco this year you can (partly) blame me - I was one of the judges at the Tesco Drinks Awards 2008.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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