Barley wine sweep #1: two sort-ofs and a definite

Barley wines round one.

Wednesday night offered a brief window for hunting barley wines (or old ales, or strong ales – BWOASA from now on).

We found two quite similar beers that offered considerable food for thought: Oakham Hawse Buckler and Moor Old Freddy Walker.

We came across the former on cask at the Drapers Arms, our local. At 5.6%, just at the lower end of our ‘strong ale’ bracket, it’s billed as a ‘black beer’, but doesn’t half look like a stout. Obviously. On first tasting, as prickly, sticky hops poked their way through a fairly dry body, we remembered the craze for black IPA of a decade ago.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, it didn’t immediately meet any of our expectations of BWOASA. But the more we drank, the more we noticed a morello cherry, fortified wine character.

* * *

Old Freddy Walker (7.3%) is a beer we’ve known in one form or another for years, now. It’s one of the few relics of when Moor was an old school Somerset real ale brewery rather than the urban craft beer outfit it is today.

It was the only BWOASA we could find on offer at our local speciality beer shop, Bottles & Books, where, frankly, we had hoped to come across at least a few examples. It cost £3.80 for 330ml. It was at this point we began to get mildly anxious: what if there just aren’t any in Bristol right now, as blossom appears on trees and students get their shorts out of storage?

Old Old Freddy was in the Spingo Special style – intensely boozy, syrupy sweet, very brown. The current incarnation, though it takes the name, is black, much drier, and much more evidently hoppy. Grassy and herbal, even.

A bit like Hawse Buckler, in fact.

If OFW is an old ale (that’s how it’s badged) then HB can be one too – especially as HB seemed more luscious, despite the lower ABV.

* * *

Then finally, last night, we found a definite barley wine, also from Moor: Benny Havens, 9.5% in a 330ml can, at £4.25 from Brewer’s Droop on Gloucester Road.

The feller behind the counter was astonished and appalled to realise it was the only barley wine or old ale he had in stock. He pointed to imperial stouts and double IPAs, and had any number of obscure German and Belgian beers, but this particular style… Well, it’s just the wrong time of year, isn’t it?

We bought the one can there was and drank it at home, paired with On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1970.

It really looked the part, this one – golden, bright, with a generous white foam. Instinctively, we thought it tasted right, too, more or less how we always want Gold Label to be. That is, sweet, heavy, smooth, but also with a solid underlying bitterness, perfectly in balance, just up very high. There was maybe a smoky, grainy edge to it, but only faint, and not unappealing. The hops were perhaps a bit rough and rowdy but that would no doubt pass with age. (But… can you age cans?) There were aromas of peach and grape, wrapped up in soothing boozy fug.

Yes, definitely a barley wine, and very decent, too.

But then, a final doubt… didn’t double IPA also taste like this once? In around 2008?

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