beer reviews

Ale That’s Stale but also Immature

J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2002 & 2009.

Manchester brewers J.W. Lees’ Harvest Ale (‘a vintage barley wine made from the first hops of the year and the very finest British malt’) is one of those beers included in what was once our ‘hit list’, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide. In The Book, a 1999 vintage is pictured in the customary glossy-beer-book glamour shot, glowing like a red traffic light, with a perfect off-white head. ‘When young,’ Jackson says, ‘the beer is emphatically rich and spicy… With age, it becomes less sweet, spicier, and winier.’ Sounds delicious, right?

A few months ago, in a short wait between trains, we managed to run to the Tucker’s Maltings beer shop in Newton Abbot, Devon, where we grabbed (not an Americanism — we were in a hurry) bottles of the 2002 and 2009 Harvest Ales. Last night, we dusted them off and gave them a go.

Observation #1: On opening, 2009 emitted barely any aroma; 2002, on the other hand, filled the room with the smell of Stir-up Sunday. The former was dark toffee coloured, while the latter edged towards black-red.

#2: We’ve always read ‘nutty’ or ‘almondy’ in tasting notes but rarely been struck by it ourselves. These beers, though, could act as training tools for learning to spot ‘nuttiness’. In the 2002, it was pleasant — just a hint of brown oiliness at the back of the mouth — but, unfortunately, 2009 had an overwhelming aftertaste of walnuts from the back of the store cupboard. Rancid ones. Great handfuls of ’em.

#3: 2009 seemed to prove that a beer can be both past its best and not yet ready. It needed more time to dry out but already had stale flavours. Perhaps the shelf storage at Newton Abbot wasn’t kind to it? ‘Like muddy potatoes,’ was the final verdict.

#4: The 2002, though perhaps not, on balance, to our taste, was certainly rich and interesting. Darker than its little brother, we were reminded, in a good way, of the syrup from a tin of prunes. What? You want a classier comparison? Sweet Pedro Ximénez, then. (But prune syrup is more accurate.)

It looks as if we’re still waiting for a traditional British barley wine to challenge Fuller’s or Harvey’s efforts, then.

We paid £4.25 for 2002 and £3.99 for 2009. Both are 11.5% ABV.