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?