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Old ale, strong ale and barley wine for April

Gold Label Barley Wine.

We decided to immerse ourselves in a single beer style for April and asked our Patreon subscribers to choose which one. They, the bastards, went for strong ale, barley wine, or old ale.

What this means in practice is that we’re going to make an effort to go to pubs where we think these styles will be on offer, rather than retreating to the safety of lager and bitter at our usual haunts, and will order them wherever available.

We’ve given ourselves plenty of room for manoeuvre: anything over 5.5% counts as ‘strong’; and if it’s badged as old ale, strong ale or barley wine, regardless of spec, it’s in scope.

But IPAs are out – this is all about the malt.

But its spring! you cry. Well, it’s raining right now, and it usually snows in April, so we’ll see who has the last laugh.

We’ll also be trying to read about these kinds of beers, perhaps putting together one of our virtual anthologies as we go.

What we’re hoping to achieve is:

  • understanding this style, or these styles, a bit better
  • trying some new beers
  • revisiting some old classics
  • finding at least one pub in Bristol that still sells Gold Label
  • resetting our ability to discern hops ready for when May rolls around.

Tips, ideas and suggestions welcome, and do feel free to join in.

20 replies on “Old ale, strong ale and barley wine for April”

Lees Moonraker is one of the beers featured in the Wetherspoon Spring Real Ale Festival—on now until Sunday 7th April. You might be able to track it down in one of the Bristol ‘spoons. Formerly 7.5%, reduced to 6.5% a few years back, still impressive.

Robinsons Old Tom (8.5%) is the supreme barley wine—and far and away the best beer Robinsons brews. Always on the bar at The Black Horse on Friargate in Preston—a pub with a spectacular interior on the CAMRA National Inventory. Two reasons why I always break my journey south from Glasgow at Preston station…
https://pubheritage.camra.org.uk/pubs/102

I don’t know if the Scottish ‘wee heavy’ is within your remit, but Broughton Old Jock (6.7%) is a stunning example. When in Glasgow I always make a pilgrimage to Tennents Bar on Byres Road to drink it.

Old Tom is currently marketed as an old ale, but back in the late 80s/early 90s it came in foil-topped nip bottles and was described as a barley wine.

The boundary between barley wine and old ale, like that between bitter and IPA, is less clear than some style guides would have you think. See Martyn Cornell here.

Sam Smith’s do a traditional Yorkshire Stingo (8% to 9%). As far as I am aware its only available in bottles. The only stockists I know are Keelham Farm Shop in Skipton or directly from Sam Smith’s. Not very helpful, but I have also seen it in “Total Wine” in Boynton Beach, Florida.

A fantastic beer that stands a year or two of ageing. Many of their pubs get a case to sell every year so it can still be found in the fridges now and then but it’s pot luck.

It turns up in bottles in Smith’s pubs, and we’ve definitely seen it in Bristol. About 12 quid a bottle though, if I recall correctly.

If you ever go up the M6, I’ve bought Stingo from Tebay services at retail rather than pub prices. They have a pretty decent selection of beers, mostly local, but also including pretty much the full Sam range.

I’ve never been to Gloucester services but they’re part of the same group so might have some?

I’m always surprised by the number of supermarket-friendly bottled ales from (often fairly unadventurous) traditional breweries that are actually slight odd survivors of older strong ale traditions. I keep wondering about doing a survey / group tasting for the blog, but the logistics and hangover potential mean that it hasn’t happened yet. Off the top of my head, there’s Broadside, Bishop’s Finger, Old Tom, Lees Moonraker, Greene King Strong Suffolk, Riggwelter, Old Peculier, Fullers 1845…

I assume from your “ideal barley wine” post that there’s no room in this exploration for any of the delightful US (or American-style) examples such as Bigfoot that display significant hop character and bitterness alongside all the malt? Seems a shame to leave them out.

sounds like an excuse to work through all the editions of Old Freddie Walker. Hope you’ve got deep pockets

A mention for Lymn Dam and Dunham Gold, as one of the very few strong golden ales – sort of a cross between Boddies and a tripel. They only seem to do one batch a year between the two sister breweries, mostly for festivals.

You’ve probably seen, but Gold Label is still hanging on in cans in Sainsburys, can’t imagine it will survive for much longer. Can’t imagine that ABI still do it on draught, surely?

GL turns up in cans in pubs occasionally, which is all we’re hoping for. Traditionally a bottled product anyway.

It’s an obvious contender for a potential ABI British range, reinvented if they could be bothered. Stuff like eg doing a heritage version of Mackeson at the original 4.5%-ish now that milk stouts are kinda cool again (maybe get a Kent micro like Pig & Porter to do it, in the vein of Tetley No 3?). Take some of the crap out of Gold Label and make it an “event” beer at Christmas along the lines of Fuller’s Vintage, bottle-conditioned in a nice box that would sit well in Waitrose. Brits might be sceptical at first but it’s the sort of thing that they could easily put into their international “craft” distribution network.

I dunno, maybe they’re doing enough volume to make the current model worthwhile, but I assume that apathy in Leuven/Brazil has done for GL what it’s done for Bass and Boddies.

Thank goodness you’ll have Mild Month in May to recover!

Not sure of the availability of any of these in the UK, but for an American take:
– North Coast Old Stock Ale
– Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine
– Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot
– Victory Old Horizontal
– Third Coast Old Ale

This won’t end well, you mark my words. You’ll hear the tales of Old Peculier and Old Tom and Owd Roger, and Moonraker and Coniston No 9 and Dunham Gold and McEwan’s Champion and Sam’s Stingo and Young’s Winter Warmer, but will you be able to find them? In Bristol? In April? Will you heck as like. (Interesting that, of the nine beers I’ve just listed, six hail from Up North and one from Scotland.) You’ll be forced, inexorably, to broaden your parameters – you’ll end up including beers like, say, Oakham Hawse Buckler – and you’ll end up wondering whether barley wine is even a thing.

That’s what I reckon will happen.

Lees have been making a push on Moonraker lately; one of their pubs I go to sometimes, has had bottles on a prominent shelf for the last ?six months? and it’s available from (some?) Morrisons.

Champion is widely available in supermarkets, Tesco also had a whisky barrel one for a while. Ditto Old Peculier; Old Tom is in Sainsburys and Asda. Then there’s the “southeastern olds” – Sheps 1698 and the Greene King ones like Old Crafty Hen (which gets a thimbleful of 5X and isn’t bad at all) and Abbot Reserve, all pretty generally available.

Fuller’s Golden Pride has started showing up in some Waitroses but there’s no logic to it – the little one at the north end of London Bridge has it, but not the bigger one a few blocks away down Cannon St. I guess Vintage would also count if you can still find last year’s anywhere.

But yep, Dunham Gold/Lymm Dam is going to be a tough find at the best of times, they did bottle it at one point but I’m trying to think if I’ve seen it lately. Maybe at the Knutsford festival next weekend…

Why bother with the bottled version when Lees Moonraker is one of the beers featured in the Wetherspoon Spring Real Ale Festival—on now until Sunday 7th April? I’ve had it in The Lord John in Stroud for £1.49 a pint (including 50p CAMRA discount).

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