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 His dad brought some home from work at Christ­mas, dis­count­ed out-of-date stock (ho ho!)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.


    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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