beer reviews

Ale That’s Stale but also Immature

J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2002 & 2009.

Manchester brewers J.W. Lees’ Harvest Ale (‘a vintage barley wine made from the first hops of the year and the very finest British malt’) is one of those beers included in what was once our ‘hit list’, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide. In The Book, a 1999 vintage is pictured in the customary glossy-beer-book glamour shot, glowing like a red traffic light, with a perfect off-white head. ‘When young,’ Jackson says, ‘the beer is emphatically rich and spicy… With age, it becomes less sweet, spicier, and winier.’ Sounds delicious, right?

A few months ago, in a short wait between trains, we managed to run to the Tucker’s Maltings beer shop in Newton Abbot, Devon, where we grabbed (not an Americanism — we were in a hurry) bottles of the 2002 and 2009 Harvest Ales. Last night, we dusted them off and gave them a go.

Observation #1: On opening, 2009 emitted barely any aroma; 2002, on the other hand, filled the room with the smell of Stir-up Sunday. The former was dark toffee coloured, while the latter edged towards black-red.

#2: We’ve always read ‘nutty’ or ‘almondy’ in tasting notes but rarely been struck by it ourselves. These beers, though, could act as training tools for learning to spot ‘nuttiness’. In the 2002, it was pleasant — just a hint of brown oiliness at the back of the mouth — but, unfortunately, 2009 had an overwhelming aftertaste of walnuts from the back of the store cupboard. Rancid ones. Great handfuls of ’em.

#3: 2009 seemed to prove that a beer can be both past its best and not yet ready. It needed more time to dry out but already had stale flavours. Perhaps the shelf storage at Newton Abbot wasn’t kind to it? ‘Like muddy potatoes,’ was the final verdict.

#4: The 2002, though perhaps not, on balance, to our taste, was certainly rich and interesting. Darker than its little brother, we were reminded, in a good way, of the syrup from a tin of prunes. What? You want a classier comparison? Sweet Pedro Ximénez, then. (But prune syrup is more accurate.)

It looks as if we’re still waiting for a traditional British barley wine to challenge Fuller’s or Harvey’s efforts, then.

We paid £4.25 for 2002 and £3.99 for 2009. Both are 11.5% ABV.

9 replies on “Ale That’s Stale but also Immature”

I’ve always found this too sweet for my taste to be honest although I can recognise it’s a very good beer. I only wish I’d bought a pack each year from day 1 – I could have made a killing on ebay.

By the way, and just to show there’s nothing really new under the sub, Lees have been producing various spirit cak versions of this almost since it was introduced. It has a cult following in the US (and notably in New York I am told) – the US importer used to send the primed wooden casks over for Lees to fill and send back. Not sure whether that’s still the case. I have a few bottles of various versions in my cellar – must dig a couple out some time and give them a go.

Had a bit of a crisis of confidence — we weren’t very good at it and no-one likes reading them — but I think we’re over it.

Had forgotten how much fun it was, and also how therapeutic to forget everything else and really concentrate, so there will be a few more to come.

Harvest Ale is, or rather can be, a great beer for laying down. Unfortunately I’ve had a few which have been nigh on undrinkable. When it’s good, it’s sublime, the oldest I’ve had would have been 15 years old when I drank it and it was like a rich Sherry, very sweet and full of caramelised friuts.

In the pre-beer taste note days, only rarely did you get descriptions which used metaphors that conveyed a real idea of the taste. (E.g., too often they said “glutinous”, “heady”, “stomachic”, “tonic”…). However, one term that appears from about 1900 in more than one source, to describe the characteristic taste of bottle-conditioned beer, is nutty, a term akin to many adjectives used today to describe a beer taste.

We can infer you have identified the same characteristic, and this is very helpful since it gives some real idea what the original beers were like and what is available today in the same vein.

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