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.

BWOASA: Fuller’s comes through

Fuller's barley wine.

After our depth-testing was a bit of a failure last week, we were starting to get really worried: was this going to be a month of posts about the absence of barley wine, old ale and strong ale?

Then we realised there was at least one safe bet: Fuller’s.

The Old Fish Market isn’t a pub we’re mad keen on, tending to the businesslike in terms of atmosphere, though it does the job from time to time when we want a fix of one of our favourite London breweries.

Crucially, we also know it carries both Golden Pride and 1845 in bottles, and so on Friday night, before Ray caught a train to London, in we went for a bottle of each, with a chaser of ESB.

We don’t drink Golden Pride often, perhaps once every couple of years. There’s a lingering sense in our minds that it’s a bit… trashy, maybe? It’s not bottle-conditioned, it’s less complex than some other Fuller’s strong ales, and has a less interesting backstory. Which is why a mission like this is helpful in focusing the mind: it’s a great beer, and we’re lucky it still exists.

Copper-coloured and jewel-like, it delivered everything we expect from the ideal barley wine: sweetness, fruitiness, richness. Sherry, fruitcake, dates and prunes. Golden syrup, honey and brown sugar. An avalanche of marmalade.

Again, we found ourselves wondering where the boundary between this type of beer and old-school double IPA might lie. Perhaps side-by-side the distinction would be clearer.

Anyway, yes, here it is – the official standard reference barley wine, against which others should be judged.

* * *

We used to love 1845, the classic bottle-conditioned strong ale, but apparently we’ve grown apart.

Perhaps it was the close comparison to Golden Pride but, even at 6.3%, it seemed thin, harsh and unpleasantly earthy. As it warmed up, it gained some weight, and the bitterness fell back into something like balance, but it lacked fruitiness.

Its main effect was to make us really, really want a pint of ESB.

* * *

We’re lucky to have ESB, too. At its best – and on Friday, it was at its best – it’s a beer that brings the depth and density of a nip-bottle-sipper into the pub pint glass.

Even after drinking Golden Pride at 8.5%, ESB at 5.5 tasted chewy, charming and luscious. You know the flavours but, just in case: marmalade, fruitcake, mild spice, cherry and orange zest. Hot cross buns perhaps sums it up.

Maybe this is why we don’t drink Golden Pride more often – because ESB provides 80% of the pleasure with far less boozy intensity, while still feeling like a special treat.

* * *

We floated out of the OFM quite happy, feeling that we were finally on the right track.

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?