Thomas Hardy’s 2008 versus Thomas Hardy’s 1988

The latest, 2008 edition of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, the strong bottle-conditioned beer from the West Country, has just hit the shelves, with a special label celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first brewing of THA back in 1968.

That first brew, made by Eldridge Pope of Dorchester in Devon, was itself commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of the novelist Thomas Hardy in 1928. Hardy lived in Dorchester, set one of his best-known novels (The Mayor of Casterbridge) in the town, eulogised the town’s beer in another novel, The Trumpet Major, and was a friend of the Popes, owners of the brewery. When the brewery refurbished a local pub called The Trumpet Major in 1968, it celebrated with a special 12 per cent abv beer.

It was another six years before Thomas Hardy’s Ale was brewed again, but the beer was produced in both 1974 and 1975, and from 1977 onwards Eldridge Pope brewed and bottled the beer every year. The last brewing in Dorchester took place in 1999, and the brewery closed a few years later.

Fortunately the American beer wholesaler Phoenix Importers, which had been selling Thomas Hardy’s Ale in the United States since the first brewing in 1968, managed to commission a new small brewer in the West Country, O’Hanlon’s of Whimple, near Exeter, in Devon, to recreate the beer in 2003 and it has been making the beer every year since then.

Waitrose supermarkets are currently doing a five-for-four special on the 2008 THA, which at £3.49 full-price, is worth investing in, so since journeyman journalism currently takes me near a branch of middle-class England’s favourite food outlet I bought a stash. I don’t have any 1968 versions (the oldest I own are a couple of bottles of the 1975) but I did have a bottle of the 1988, and in honour of the 40th anniversary brew I thought it would be fun to see how it compared with the 20th anniversary version.

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Reasons to be a cheerful beer drinker, part 16645

Fullers Brewers Reserve

Fuller's Brewer's Reserve

There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker: and I’d like to submit as just one plank in the platform that supports this claim Fuller’s new Brewer’s Reserve, its 7.7 per cent abv whisky cask–aged ale.

Why is this the best time to be a beer drinker ever? Isn’t the dominance of mass- produced, lowest common denominator lagers and “extra cold” (that is, even less taste than normal) beers, the continuing decline in the number of old-established family brewers, ever-higher beer taxes, the ludicrous war on normal drinking under the pretext of attacking “bingers”, and the closure of a horrifying number of pubs every week enough to make this a deeply depressing time to be a beer drinker?

Well, that’s the bad news. But the real story, I believe, is the Everest of enthusiasm that exists among brewers in pursuing quality, exciting beer experiences, which is reflected in more innovation, more experimentation, more excitement in the brewing industry, even in comparatively conservative Britain, in the past five, ten, 20 years than in any comparative period, ever.

When the Campaign for Real Ale started 37 years ago, British beer consisted of bitter, mild, a few old ales and barley wines, a few brown ales and stouts, and the first, weak, imitation lagers. Since then we have seen the revival of porter, in increasingly authentic forms, the return of specialist stouts, the return of odd historic brews such as heather ale, and fruit ales, proper wheat beers, the broadening out of lager brewing in Britain to take in authentic Continental styles, the invention of an entirely new category in golden ales, and now the arrival of another previously unseen style, cask-aged beers.

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Twenty more beers before lunchtime

My normal reason for travelling to Parson’s Green in West London is to drink at the White Horse, still a fine place to find a wide selection of beers in a congenial setting (except if the upper middle classes bring you out in a rash, of course).

I was in Sloaneland yesterday, however, for the latest series of the Tesco Drinks Awards, when a very large number of bottled brews are subjected to blind tastings by teams of experienced judges, and me.

Like the similar Sainsbury’s awards, these are a big deal for the winning brewers, since they come with a guaranteed listing on the supermarkets’ shelves. For the retailers, the chance is there to find some great beers your rivals won’t have, and add to the differentiation between your supermarket and the one up the road – which is doubtless why Asda (owned by Wal-Mart, US readers) is now doing the same thing.

Unlike the Sainsbury’s awards, the beers in the Tesco judging are drunk “blind”, the bottles carefully wrapped in thick plastic to disguise their origin. However, the scoresheets, helpfully, now list the ingredients, down to the level of exactly what varieties of hops and types of malt went into each brew. This is fascinating in its own right, and it’s a shame and a scandal that all brewers don’t do this as a regular habit on their bottle labels.

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Sainsbury’s winning bottled beers

This blog is currently the top result in a Google search for outsize menswear chain Massachusetts. I haven’t, you’ll guess, ever written about retailers of XXL male clothing in the Greater Boston area, but I did make a joke when I blogged on judging at the Sainsbury’s beer competition in April about the name of the High & Mighty brewery in New England being in honour of the outfitters for gentlemen of a more substantial scale.

It’s not, of course, the brewery’s name comes from an alleged comment supposedly made by Julius Caesar about the ancient Britons drinking a “high and mighty liquor” made from barley and water which left “space enough for the performance of many great actions before it quite vanished the spirits.”

Sadly, I’m really sorry guys, and also sorry for the Ridgeway Brewery in Oxfordshire, which brews High & Mighty’s Beer of the Gods under licence in the UK, Caesar never said any such thing. This “quote” appears in several modern publications, and is even given a precise chapter reference as to where it allegedly appears in Caesar’s De Belli Bello Gallico by Mia Ball in her history of the Worshipful Company of Brewers. It’s not in De Belli Bello Gallico, nor in anything else Caesar or any other Roman wrote. It’s a fake quote. Somebody, some time, for some reason, made it up.

I’m also sorry for High & Mighty, and Ridgeway, for their missing out on the top prize in the 2008 Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, the results of which were announced today at Sainsbury’s HQ in Holborn, central London. High & Mighty Beer of the Gods was one of 16 bottled beers to get through the first round of judging back in April, and those 16 beers went on sale in more than 400 Sainsbury’s stores for five weeks over August and the first part of September. The top two best-selling beers were guaranteed a further six months on the shelves in 260 Sainsbury’s stores.

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Twenty beers before lunchtime

The time is 10am and there are 20 different beers to be drunk before lunchtime. It must be another supermarket beer judging.

I judged for the twice-yearly Tesco Beer Awards quite a few times, but this week’s was the Sainsbury’s Beer Competition, and although Sainsbury’s has brought in the same PR team to organise the entries and judging as previously ran its rival’s event, the Morrice Partnership, there are several significant differences between the two contests.

For a start, the beers in the Tesco judging were drunk “blind”: nobody except the organisers knew which brewery produced which numbered beer. But Sainsbury’s deliberately has “shelf appeal” as one or its judging criteria, alongside flavour, aroma, appearance and aftertaste, believing, correctly, that no shopper will pick up a beer and take it home to find out how good it is without initially being attracted by the packaging. So all the bottles bore their labels.

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