The English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy loved beer, and he regularly frequented Dorchester pubs and Eldridge Pope Brewery to seek out great beers. Years after Thomas Hardy’s death, Eldridge Pope Brewery created Thomas Hardy’s Ale in his honor. At first,this 1968 beer appeared to be a celebratory one-off. However, production resumed in 1974, and the beer was brewed every year until 1999, at which point the brewery ceased production. Since then, the recipe was picked up in 2003 by O’Hanlon’s Brewery until 2008, and again picked up in 2014 by Interbrau. Thomas Hardy’s Ale celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018!
At the time of conception, Thomas Hardy’s Ale was a BIG beer. Indeed, this 11.7% British Barleywine required significant amounts of hops and malts, a long boil, and a 9-month ageing step on sherry casks. Once released, the brewery recommended cellaring the beer for up to 25 years before opening. The cellaring process introduced complexity and produced sherry and port-like flavors that resulted in a great-tasting and highly coveted beer.
Proper beer cellaring requires no movement or agitation, no light and cool temperatures. Agitation will kick up the yeast detritus at the bottom of the bottle, adding unwanted aromas and flavors to the beer. Light will cleave hop oils, producing an unpleasant catty flavor. Warm temperatures will allow the inevitable oxidation process to go unchecked which can result in unpleasant flavors and aromas in the beer.
Oxidation happens when the oxygen and free radicals present in small quantities in the beer oxidize several compounds and molecules, altering the taste and aroma of the beer. In many beer styles, oxidation is unflattering. For example, the paper or cardboard taste resulting from oxidation of lipids and free fatty acids is especially prevalent in lighter beers. Oxidation of hop polyphenols can result in reduction of hop aroma and flavor and can be perceived as harsh or astringent. A low ABV can allow contaminating microorganisms in low quantities to take over the beer, resulting in off flavors. As such, light SRM, low ABV, and hoppy beers tend to not age well.
On the other hand, some beer styles lend themselves well to the cellaring process. For example, dark, malt-forward, high ABV beers tend to cellar well. Example styles are British Barleywines, Imperial Stouts, and Belgian Strong Dark Ales. In addition to cooler temperatures slowing down the oxidation process, the dark malts and long boils in some of these beer styles produce antioxidants, protecting the beer from excessive oxidation during the ageing process. Oxidation in these beers tends to bring out notes of dried fruits, such as figs and prunes. Barrel-aged beers will amplify the notes from the compounds leached from the oak barrel such as vanillin (vanilla). As they age, high ABV beers will mellow out in perceived booziness and increase in perceived sweetness.
This past weekend, I was very fortunate to be able to participate in a vertical tasting of Thomas Hardy’s Ales from 1992 – 1999 that were cellared until 2020. Below are tasting descriptions for each beer, including comparisons between vintages where applicable.
This beer was rusted brown in color, with a chill haze that cleared as the beer warmed resulting in a dark brown, ruby color. A light and thin head formed initially but quickly dissipated. On the nose, caramel and toffee notes were followed by a light acetic note. The beer was slightly tart. Fig, date, and cherry notes shone through the sherry and rum notes. However, these sherry and rum notes became more dominant as the beer warmed. The mouthfeel was smooth with a medium body.
Slightly lighter in color compared to the 1992, the 1993 version poured with slightly more carbonation. There was more prune and sherry on the nose, and the acetic hint that was noted in the 1992 version was absent. The aroma was matched with more prune on the palate, and a light sweetness that increased in intensity as it warmed. Roasted notes and dark malt character were also more prominent in this version.
This year’s beer was the darkest of the vertical tasting, a deeper cherry brown that was almost dark brown. The aroma was reminiscent of coffee intermingled with prune and fig notes. Upon tasting, moderate fig, prune, and stone fruit notes were detected. A slightly tart note also accompanied this beer, a bit more prominent than the 1992 beer. As it warmed, fig became more prominent, and there was a distinct brown sugar note.
This beer is technically right at the higher end of the recommended ageing process (25 years). This beer was on the darker end of the color spectrum, although not as dark as the 1994 version. The carbonation and head retention were low as well. A moderate presence of prune, sherry and stone fruit in the aroma turned into distinct pecan and light butterscotch (diacetyl) notes as it warmed, reminiscent of your grandmother’s pecan pie. The body was sweet, and there were brown sugar and toasted notes in the aftertaste.
Lighter in color compared to previous years, this beer had less of the reddish copper tones shining through. Compared to previous years, the 1996 beer had a low aroma profile that was bright. The flavor was light, with a low molasses note. The body was also light compared to previous years and became lighter as it warmed up.
Similar to the 1996 version, this beer was also lighter in color with a low aroma profile. Low prune and caramel were more present compared to the 1996 version, with a warm alcohol note. The flavor was also subdued in this version, with a toasted note and some warmth in the aftertaste. This beer had a light-medium body.
After the low and subdued flavors from the 1996 and 1997 beers, 1999 was a surprise. This version was a deeper copper brown in color, and had rich sherry, porter, and prune notes on the nose. The taste was reminiscent of a lovely port, with sweet brown sugar notes in the aftertaste. The body was fuller in mouthfeel than in the previous two years.
In summary, all of the beers in this vertical held up remarkably well in the ageing process, and each year offered a unique combination of flavors and aromas. The evolution of those aromas and flavors as the beers warmed was remarkable and contributed to the complexity of the beer. If you see Thomas Hardy’s Ales on the shelf, seemingly unnoticed next to the newest beer trends, it is well worth it to pick some up and wait patiently for the beer to reach its full potential.
|This tasting was in celebration of
The Beer Wench's 50th birthday!