Thomas Hardys Ale, Dorset

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If you have a wine-snob friend who thinks beer is a lesser thing, introduce him or her to Thomas Hardy ’s Ale. Not only is it complex and wonderful, it even has a rather touching history to it.
Barley Wine – for such is Thomas Hardy’s Ale – is a category of beer we can date back to the strong ales of Georgian times, though Bass No 1 was the first to use the appellation in 1901. Served in nip bottles – about ¼ of a pint – as a traditional way of rounding off an evening’s enjoyment of beer, or to finish a meal, Barley Wine is not for the faint hearted, its abv usually being north of 9%.
Thomas Hardy's Ale was brewed first in 1968 to commemorate the writer’s death 40 years previously. Few fiction writers (John Steinbeck a notable exception) have ever conjured the joy of beer as well as Hardy, who celebrated the famous strong ales of Dorchester in his Wessex novel The Trumpet Major. When Napoleon tried to keep French wine from us we turned to stronger ales, making drinking the stuff almost a patriotic duty. The Eldridge Pope Brewery of Dorchester which brewed Thomas Hardy’s closed in 1996, wanting to focus on keeping pubs. Happily for posterity if not my liver O’Hanlon’s of Whimple in Devon took it on, saving it for the nation.
How to describe Thomas Hardy’s Ale? First the easy technical bits: it is strong, generally between 11% and 12.5% abv and thus very sweet though hoppily bitter at the same time; it uses pale ale malts; it is rich with hops – Goldings and Styrian – and a lovely reddish hue; it has yeast added three times in the process; and it matures in the tank for three months and is recommended to be kept in the bottle for at least five years to be at its mature best, though will keep for more than 20 years or so it is said.
Describing the flavours is far harder, there are simply so many to be found with diligent enquiry: tobacco; coffee; banoffee pie; port and sherry; butterscotch; walnuts and Brazil nuts; old socks – but in a good way; wet leather – again in a good way; fruitcake. The list goes on, and is in the end a personal thing; each drinker will find their own comparisons and description. And as this is a beer that keeps and matures in the bottle, what is found at one tasting may not necessarily be repeated at a later date.
Two warnings to end: first, the finest things in life do not come cheaply, and that is certainly true of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, but better one nip bottle of Thomas Hardy’s than two pints of innocuous over-chilled international lager (and do serve your Barley Wine at cellar temperature, not warm, not icily cold). Secondly, remember its strength, and as the campaign says drink sensibly, though some would think drinking really flavoursome ale a step in that direction.

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