BWOASA: Marble Barley Wine from a dusty old can

One of the good things about this little project has been the nudge to go to different places, such as Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green.

Though we still think of it as that new bar we must get to at some point, it turns out to be five years old, and now part of a sub­stan­tial chain. Time slips away.

We had formed the idea, per­haps based on murky social media pho­tos, that it was a small, dark space on the cor­ner of a back street. In fact, it’s in a large rail­way arch with a decent beer gar­den and, on a sun­ny April after­noon at least, per­fect­ly airy and bright.

Though Moth­er Kel­ly’s does have draught beer, its sell­ing point is real­ly the wall of fridges on the cus­tomer side, packed with intrigu­ing beers from sought after brew­eries. We fig­ured there might be at least one bar­ley wine lurk­ing in there.

There were three, but they took a while to find, dur­ing which squint­ing, bent-backed hunt we con­clud­ed that fan­cy pack­ag­ing designs and quirky names are great and all that but they don’t half make it a chal­lenge to work out what you’re buy­ing.

We chose the cheap­est of the three at a drink-in price of £12 for 440ml. It was the 2017 vin­tage of Mar­ble’s won­der­ful­ly clear­ly-named 12.4% bar­ley wine, BARLEY WINE. Being an antique, the can had spots of rust across its top, and crumbs and dust, so we asked for a quick clean up before pour­ing. We got it, albeit grudg­ing­ly – maybe a bit of filth on your tin­ny is con­sid­ered all part of the fun these days?

Marble Barley Wine in the glass.

Sit­ting down to drink a beer that you already resent is a good test of qual­i­ty. Any irri­ta­tion we felt in this case passed the moment we tast­ed it, which real­ly was fan­tas­tic – almost, maybe, per­haps £6‑per-nip good.

It seemed pos­i­tive­ly lumi­nous in the dain­ty glass­ware, cycling orange, red and gold depend­ing how the light struck it. The con­di­tion was also excel­lent prov­ing that cans can work for this kind of beer.

Between appre­cia­tive purring, we talked it over: on the one hand, it did rather resem­ble Gold Label, but it also remind­ed us of a very par­tic­u­lar beer: an attempt to recre­ate Bal­lan­tine IPA using Clus­ter hops. Rasp­ber­ry jam, mar­malade, chewy syrup sweet­ness, clean-tast­ing and dou­ble-bass res­o­nance. Just won­der­ful.

And one more small twist: because of the dif­fi­cul­ty of pour­ing two clear glass­es from one can, we got to try this with and with­out (a tiny bit) of yeast haze. On bal­ance, though it was hard to resist the sheer visu­al appeal of yeast­less, slight­ly yeasty actu­al­ly tast­ed bet­ter – soft­er and silki­er, with a lit­tle less jan­gle.

We con­tin­ue to hold Mar­ble in high regard and will prob­a­bly go back to Moth­er Kel­ly’s some time, when we’ve saved up some pock­et mon­ey.

BWOASA: Our first taste of yer actual Watney’s beer

This really was a big moment. We’ve tasted clones, read plenty, and written a lot, but we’ve never actually tasted Watney’s beer.

We’ve been cor­re­spond­ing on and off with Tom Unwin for years. He grew up near Jess and we inter­viewed his Dad, Trevor, for Brew Bri­tan­nia. When Tom came into pos­ses­sion of sev­er­al bot­tles of a strong ale pro­duced by Wat­ney’s in 1987 to cel­e­brate the sup­posed 500th anniver­sary of the found­ing of the Mort­lake brew­ery.

(You can read the inevitable Mar­tyn Cor­nell take­down of that sto­ry here.)

We set aside a lit­tle time to enjoy the expe­ri­ence of drink­ing this beer, 137ml each, even though we sus­pect­ed it was going to be rank. After all, Wat­ney’s beer was­n’t well regard­ed even when fresh, and this had been stored for 30+ years in a sub­ur­ban side­board.

The label told us that the beer had an orig­i­nal grav­i­ty of between 1096 and 1104 – quite a range, giv­ing us a hint that it was prob­a­bly around 10–11% ABV.

Pop­ping the foil cov­ered cap, we were treat­ed to the barest hiss, and found the inside of the lid cov­ered in rusty sludge. It had a slight, bub­bly head that drift­ed away in sec­onds.

There was a whiff of roast­ed malt, we thought, or per­haps even smoke, and then a big punch of sher­ry.

It tastes like Pedro Ximénez – raisins, prunes, a bit of bal­sam­ic vine­gar. There was also an almond nut­tin­ness and a lay­er of dark choco­late.

Run­ning through all of this, stop­ping it from quite being out-and-out pleas­ant to drink, was a beefy, Mar­mite line.

If you’ve read any oth­er tast­ing notes on old beers, none of the above will be sur­pris­ing. We prob­a­bly could have writ­ten them before we even opened the bot­tle.

Still, it was spe­cial, and an expe­ri­ence we can now tick off our wish list.

BWOASA: Bear Essentials Barley Wine

Barley wine on a bookshelf

A canned 13% bar­ley wine with rasp­ber­ries and vanil­la at £5.99 for 330ml? If we weren’t engaged in this BWOASA mis­sion for April, we’d have gone nowhere near.

A col­lab­o­ra­tion between Aberdeen’s Fierce and New­port’s Tiny Rebel, Bear Essen­tials turned up at Bot­tles & Books, our local craft booza­to­ri­um.

We drank it at home last night, approach­ing with some ner­vous­ness. This is where the twist is sup­posed to come, right? Well…

We did­n’t real­ly like it. It was strong, but tast­ed thin. It was com­plex and weird, but not in a way that pleased us – a jum­ble rather than a cav­al­cade.

Specifics: it was red, had low car­bon­a­tion and a loose head, and smelled like Bakewell tart. The sug­ges­tion of almond and bis­cuit base car­ried through into the flavour, joined by a sub­tle mouth-tight­en­ing sour­ness, and a heavy lay­er of vanil­la.

White choco­late stout? Pas­try Fram­boise? Maybe. Bar­ley wine? Only because the label said so. Noth­ing about the look, tex­ture or flavour sug­gest­ed any con­nec­tion to Gold­en Pride or Gold Label.

So what does bar­ley wine sig­nal in a craft beer con­text? High alco­holic strength, sweet­ness, and the absence of either hops or roast­ed flavours, we think.

BWOASA: What’s the point of ‘strong ale’?

Strong ales and ESB.

Let’s be honest, strong ale, the SA in BWOASA, is the least exciting part. We only included it, really, to give ourselves a fighting chance, suspecting that we’d find more strong ale than barley wine out in the field.

As it is, we’ve hard­ly encoun­tered much at all – again, it is the wrong time of year – but even with only a few points of ref­er­ence, a view of this niche is becom­ing clear.

Strong ale, AKA extra spe­cial bit­ter, tends to sit above best bit­ter in a giv­en brew­ery’s range, in terms of both rich­ness and ABV. Of course there are no hard rules but it seems rea­son­able to take 5% as the low­er cut-off. Oth­er words you might see on the pack­ag­ing or at point of sale include ‘pre­mi­um’ and ‘malty’.

Hav­ing checked in with Fuller’s ESB and 1845 at the start of the month, the next strong ale we encoun­tered was Good Chem­istry Extra Spe­cial, at 5.6%. Jess found it at Small Bar, and Ray had it a week lat­er at the Drap­ers; when we com­pared notes, we found sim­i­lar obser­va­tions: juicy malt (but not juicy hops), round­ness, brown­ness, liquorice, trea­cle and a hint of smoke. If you mixed Fuller’s ESB with Theak­ston Old Peculi­er, 50–50, this might be what you’d end up with. We both like it quite a bit, but it’s res­olute­ly old-fash­ioned, and real­ly demands snow and open fires, rather than blos­som and length­en­ing days.

* * *

We had a bit of a debate over Gof­f’s Black Knight, 5.3%, at the Bank Tav­ern in Bris­tol city cen­tre. Ray took against it – ‘Dusty, unfin­ished home­brew, an absolute crys­tal malt night­mare.’ – while Jess rather liked it, and did­n’t detect what­ev­er got his hack­les up. It cer­tain­ly is a beer with crys­tal malt to the fore, though, hav­ing that assertive tof­fee taste we used to encounter con­stant­ly a decade ago but which seems to have all but dis­ap­peared from com­mer­cial beers. It remind­ed us of when hard­core geeks used to moan about beers being ‘twig­gy’. Real­ly, Black Knight is all about body: mouth-fill­ing, nour­ish­ing, almost enough to cre­osote a fence.

* * *

Palmer’s 200 at the Oxford in Tot­ter­down is anoth­er blast from the past, a remind­ed of hol­i­days in and around Lyme Reg­is in our twen­ties, when we’d groan at yet anoth­er line-up of brown beers in one damp old pub or anoth­er, and long for even the faintest whis­per of hops. At 5%, it only just push­es its head out of best bit­ter ter­ri­to­ry, but looks, feels and tastes the part: red-brown, dense, sug­ary… one-dimen­sion­al. Boiled sweets and caramel. Sticky. We did­n’t  mind it (the faintest of praise) but per­haps we’re devel­op­ing Stock­holm Syn­drome, because our drink­ing com­pan­ion ordered a pint on our advice and looked almost hurt, as if we’d played a cru­el prank.

* * *

What is the point of strong ale? Who real­ly knows. To gen­er­alise, based on a com­bi­na­tion of this recent expe­ri­ence and fad­ing mem­o­ries, it gets you drunk, and makes you feel full, but with­out offer­ing much in the way of flavour, unless you real­ly like 50 shades of sug­ar and some­thing from the wood­shed.

Of course the best exam­ples have a cer­tain mag­ic about them but this style, per­haps more than any oth­er, demands inter­est­ing yeast (Fuller’s) or some oth­er sleight of hand to give it life.

Bona fide barley wine in Bedmo

On Sunday afternoon, we mounted another barley wine hunt, eventually hitting a big fat bullseye at the Bristol Beer Factory brewery tap.

Now, a reminder: the hunt­ing is half the fun. We went to the Wild Beer Co bar at Wap­ping Wharf where there was noth­ing that quite fit the bill, though it was cer­tain­ly nice to check in.

We detoured via the Coro­na­tion hav­ing got into our heads that it might have Gold Label bar­ley wine in the fridge. It did­n’t but (i) it was an #Every­Pu­bIn­Bris­tol tick; (ii) had fan­tas­tic Hop Back Sum­mer Light­ning; and (iii) was just a straight-up great pub we’d some­how over­looked until this point.

Even if we had­n’t found any BWOAS (bar­ley wine, old ale, strong ale) we’d have been quite hap­py with this expe­di­tion, but at the final stop, the Bris­tol Beer Fac­to­ry tap­room, we saw a very excit­ing chalk­board.

Barley wine blackboard.

It was bot­tled (but that’s quite appro­pri­ate for this style) and out of reach on a top shelf so the tall bar­man had to stand on tip­toes to fetch it for us.

It was bot­tled in Octo­ber 2015, had an ABV of c.10%, and cost £5 per 330ml to drink in. Not cheap but it seemed fair enough to us, espe­cial­ly once we got our first sip.

It’s dark and deeply coloured but not black – hold it up to the light and, yes, it gleams blood red. It smelled like stir-up Sun­day. It tast­ed stale in the his­toric sense, matured to per­fec­tion, leath­ery and lux­u­ri­ous. There was a touch of acid­i­ty, but real­ly just a touch, sea­son­ing rather than dom­i­nat­ing. It sat on the palate like hot por­ridge and gold­en syrup – oh, no, like sweet grain from the mash tun.

We were remind­ed of the one bot­tle of Good King Hen­ry Spe­cial Reserve we’ve ever tast­ed, and of Har­vey’s Christ­mas Ale. Sud­den­ly anx­ious that we might nev­er get to taste it again, we sent the lad up on his toes again to fetch four more bot­tles to take away.

This mis­sion, it must be said, is going bet­ter than we ever expect­ed.