Magical Mystery Pour Side Mission: Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy in profile on the neck of our 1986 beer bottle.

You never saw The Beatles live? Seriously? But they’re a hugely important band!

That’s a bit how it feels to have been into beer for all these years without ever getting to know Thomas Hardy’s Ale. It was listed in the Bible of our early enthusiasm, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide, and the elder statesfolk of beer writing all seem to have cellars full of the stuff and have tasted multiple vintages, multiple times, all the way back to 1968.

Our one encounter with it — or, rather, Bailey’s — is from a year or two before we started blogging. His dad brought some home from work at Christmas, discounted out-of-date stock (ho ho!) being a warehouseman’s perk. Innocently, they drank it fresh and, being more used to straightforward 4% session bitters, found it insanely strong and sweet and weird tasting. Most of the bottle went down the sink.

That bottle would have been brewed by O’Hanlon’s who took on the brand after Eldridge Pope was wound up in 2003. They brewed it for several years but, by the time we’d got the taste for stronger and more complex beers, Thomas Hardy’s had once again become extinct, being too expensive for O’Hanlon’s to produce and mature. We missed our window to build a collection and can’t quite be bothered to buy bottles at auction or wherever.

Thomas Hardy beer bottle cap: 'Huntsman'.Then, the other day, Andy Parker (@tabamatu) got in touch. He’d been to a pub which, through some miracle, had a large stash of vintage Thomas Hardy’s for sale at perfectly reasonable prices. He’d bought one with us in mind and wanted to post it to Penzance. We said, ‘Yes please!’ (Andy runs Elusive Brewing; we paid £7.80 for the beer and postage but, still, disclosure and all that.) The 1986 vintage that arrived was more archaelogical artefact than beer, packaged before the requirement to list ABV, the label apparently gnawed by rodents, and tiny too: 180ml all in.

Not wanting this to become one of those beers that’s too special to drink, especially given that 25 years is the top-end of how long its supposed to age, and with Patrick Dawson’s advice in mind, we got stuck in. We’ll keep these comments brief, though, because the internet is already 23% full of Thomas Hardy tasting notes.

Thomas Hardy in the glass: black beer, tan foam.

Opening the ancient foil-covered cap, we got a brief low-energy hiss. It produced a loose, thin head on top of a placid red-black oil. The aroma was very like Pedro Ximenez dessert wine — stewed fruit and boiling jam — overlaid with daaaaaaaaaaaark chocolate.

Expecting sherry flavours, we were taken aback by salty, beefy, Bovril-Marmite muddiness. Our first thought was that, oh no, maybe it had gone over. The more we drank, though, the more we found to enjoy: the muddy note clarified to something like really fresh, earthy potatoes (nicer than it sounds and not so crazy) while the aftertaste was all roasted chestnuts and almonds. The savouriness seemed to recede and then became quite complimentary in a salted-caramel way.

We felt we were just getting the hang of it as the 180ml — 90ml each! — dwindled away to nothing.

Eight quid doesn’t seem a lot to have paid for the pleasure of tasting something really rare and iconic and we’d probably grab another bottle or two if we saw them at the same price again. Having said that, if you don’t get the chance, you haven’t missed out that much: there are cheaper and easier-to-find beers being made today with as much if not more complexity, such as Harvey’s Imperial Stout.

And Thomas Hardy’s itself has been revived but we’ve yet to find a bottle of the new incarnation for sale anywhere. At least now, if we ever do, we’ll have some kind of reference point.

8 thoughts on “Magical Mystery Pour Side Mission: Thomas Hardy”

  1. I have a couple of bottles of 1974 vintage. I may open one on my next significant birthday – which isn’t too far off.

  2. In Toronto in the 80s a pub gave me the better part of a case, thinking they were spoiled. Unfortunately I used them all up in a couple of years… I remember sweet, medicinal, very estery. Numerous Americab barley wines, many of which copied this style, are similar. Anchor’s barleywine-style beer is not far off the mark.

    This is really a Burton Ale, the original Burton style.

    Yours sounds yeast-autolized but that is expected after so long in bottle.

    A good experience, try to repeat as each bottle is likely different.

    Gary

    1. I wouldn’t call it a Burton ale, though it’s part of the same tradition of provincial strong ales, like Old Peculier and Old Tom. The Eldridge Pope version always had that strong umami flavour, especially when young

  3. I don’t think 86 was very good, bought a few in Dorchester in the late 90s, some years could be hit and bit, the O’Hanlons ones from 2003 onwards were good, I used to get a few from the brewery that had been misfilled or badly labelled when I did some press releases for them (got paid as well, not one of those I work for beer people). Hopefully in November I will be able to report on the 1998 vintage as there are 8 in the cellar waiting for my son’s 18th birthday. PS My mum and dad saw the Beatles in 63 in Llandudno, the old man thought they were rubbish…

  4. Blimey, I’ve still got Eldridge Pope and O’Hanlon’s ones in the cupboard, and I’ve had a taste of the new one.

  5. I have a dozen 2006 vintage that I picked up in a (now closed) Exeter off license a while ago. They used to specialise in beers which might have been just past their ‘best before’ date. I don’t think that they knew exactly what they were selling, as far as these were concerned. Still have the price label on some of them – £1.29 each.

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