When we saw the tiny 275ml bottle in the window of an antique shop, we couldn’t resist spending £1 on a bottle of Adnams’ Tally Ho that we guessed was at least thirty years old.
“Whatever you do, don’t drink it,” said the man in the shop.
Having consulted various authorities, including current Adnams’ Head Brewer Fergus Fitzgerald, who may well not have been born when this beer was bottled, we decided to ignore the shopkeeper’s advice, not least because of the opportunity this presented for a sensory encounter with the period of British beer history in which we have recently been so immersed.
Tally Ho is a bottled beer produced in draught form for a few outlets at Christmas. It has an original gravity of 1075.
CAMRA Good Beer Guide 1980
In the early nineteen-eighties, there was some controversy among beer geeks over Adnams’ yeast: their Bitter, once held up as an example of what ‘real ale’ should taste like, began to seem bland. The brewery eventually admitted there had been problems, especially with infections in their yeast in the summer of 1983 (letter from John Adnams, What’s Brewing, Feb 1986). The beer was cleaner and more consistent thereafter, but did it have the same character?
And was our antique bottle of Tally Ho a chance to get a glimpse of the old, dirty, more interesting Adnams?
We got our yeast from Adnams… it was really Whitbread B yeast, and they’d got it from Lacon’s in Great Yarmouth…
Patrick Fitzpatrick of Godson Freeman & Wilmot, recalling 1977
We’ve drunk old beers before, but those had been ‘cellared’, and we had no idea how this one might have been kept. We were delighted, therefore, to hear an assertive hiss on popping the cap: it was neither flat nor a ‘gusher’. Its condition was remarkable given its age, and a fairly compact, sandy-coloured head formed on top of a near-black body. An aroma reminiscent of raisins steeping in brandy — distinctly Christmassy — enveloped the glass. There was plenty of life in it.
In the course of thirty years, it had thinned out, and so felt rather watery for its (supposed) strength. It also seemed a little slick. We noted a tongue-numbing clove or Szechuan pepper quality; a streak of rubberiness; a snatch of nail polish; a passing suggestion of rotting veg; some port-wine fruitiness; and an aroma that reminded us of leather-bound books decaying under a coat of dust. Extremely complex, in short, but not all that pleasant.
As for the yeast, we concluded that it was remarkably similar to the Harvey’s strain, which we’ve got to know quite well from the case of their strong beers we bought last year. Does anyone happen to know if Harvey’s use Whitbread B or a descendant thereof?
This has been educational, and we’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more old bottles of barley wine or imperial stout on our travels.