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Classic Beer of the Month November 2016: Thomas Hardy's Ale

Thomas Hardy’s Ale, 11.7%

In 1968, the people of Dorset paid tribute to the author Thomas Hardy. The man who set much of the action of his novels in the county – even if he called it ‘Wessex’ – had died forty years earlier and commemorations were in full flow.

Thomas Hardy's AleTo play its part, the big local brewery created a new beer. Eldridge Pope in Dorchester was one of the great family breweries of Britain. It knew its place and its duty in the local scheme of things and its contribution to the occasion was a remarkable ale that would go on to become a world classic.

Thomas Hardy’s Ale was a barley wine, around 11% ABV, matured for months at the brewery – including some time in oak – and then bottle conditioned. Bottle conditioning was certainly not the vogue at the time, so this was a brave venture.

The label carried a quotation from Hardy’s novel The Trumpet-Major that revealed the author’s own love of a good ale: ‘It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste, but, finally, rather heady’.

The beer was greatly appreciated but was treated as a one-off. According to writer Maurizio Maestrelli, who has charted the history of the beer, it wasn’t brewed again until 1974 but from that time was created annually, apart from in 1976.

The beer became known as one to ‘lay down’. With the vintage declared on each label, it was easy for connoisseurs to set aside bottles so they could mature, opening them after a period of three, four, five or, as once suggested by the brewery, twenty-five years.

It remained part of the brewery’s range right up to 1996, when a new generation of family shareholders took a different view on their role in the community and sold off the brewery to become another faceless pub company.

The beer survived a few years longer, brewed by the contract-brewing business that had taken on the site, but, with sales in decline, they pulled the plug.

First Revival

By this time, however, Thomas Hardy’s Ale had gained a global reputation. It was particularly sought out in the USA and so a distribution company called Phoenix Imports acquired the rights and asked O’Hanlon’s brewery in Devon to recreate the beer.

Liz and John O’Hanlon did this so successfully that the beer won awards but it was an impossibly costly beer for such a small brewery to produce, given the quantity of ingredients, the labour-intensive packaging and the fact that it needed to mature in tanks for several months before going on sale.

Time is money, the adage says, and this is particularly true when an expensive beer is just sitting around, not bringing in any revenue.

O’Hanlon’s reluctantly said goodbye to Thomas Hardy’s Ale and it seemed that, finally, the beer’s day was done. Then, in 2012, in rode new rescuers from an unlikely part of the world.

On summer holidays to Italy, I had always been amazed to find Thomas Hardy’s Ale sitting on supermarket shelves next to the likes of Peroni and Moretti. At home, I lived less than a hundred miles from where the beer was brewed but could never find it on sale, but here, nearly a thousand miles away, I could stuff a case into my trolley while shopping for pasta and prosciutto.

There was clearly a market for the beer, as was recognised by two brothers from Padua. For Sandro and Michele Vecchiato, who run a beer importing business, Thomas Hardy’s Ale was a prestigious beer that needed a revival.

They negotiated the rights to produce and market the beer and began looking for a producer in the UK to take it on.

Gold Medal

They eventually found the right partner in Meantime and the Greenwich brewery produced its first batch in 2014. The beer is already scooping up prizes, including a gold medal in the 2016 International Beer Challenge.

I tasted it recently and compared it with earlier examples. It was instantly appealing, rich auburn in colour – Hardy’s autumn sunset glow – with a heady, rich malt aroma that was both bready and cakey, with a sultana fruitiness.

On the palate it was full and silky with alcohol tickling the gums. Cakey sweetness led the way but a rounded bitter counterbalance was soon in play, while the sultana fruit was joined by a hint of orange and then suggestions of cherry and marzipan as the beer warmed in the mouth.

The finish was surprisingly subtle for a beer of this magnitude, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. The mellow, drying character ensured it was remarkably moreish for the strength, with that fruit-cake character still evident and a smooth hop note ensuring bitterness just had the last word, along with a faint oaky tang.

It was fresh but undoubtedly strong-tasting, with a predominant sweetness that will decline over time in the bottle.

Comparing beers years apart is a pointless exercise. Memories play tricks, palates change and you simply cannot make definitive comments. But, as far as my own beer memory can tell, this is as good as any example I’ve had before, possibly even cleaner and more polished.

In just over a year’s time, the people of Dorset will have the opportunity to commemorate the life of Thomas Hardy once more. It will be ninety years since his passing and thanks to the foresight of two Italian brothers, they will again have the perfect beer with which to toast his life and work.

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