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 His dad brought some home from work at Christmas, discounted out-of-date stock (ho ho!)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