There is one beer that hundreds, probably thousands, of beer enthusiasts the world over agree is one of the greatest beers in the world. Thomas Hardy’s Ale is an 11.7% barley wine¹, originally brewed in 1968 to commemorate the death of writer Thomas Hardy, and brewed annually (or there abouts) since the mid-1970s. Despite drawing in near-perfect scores on online beer websites, the beer has a bit of a chequered history.
Breweries have twice ceased production of the beer, with it last being brewed in 2008 by O’Hanlon’s in the UK. While it’s hoped Thomas Hardy’s Ale will soon be on the shelves again, with the Italian beer importers and distributers, Brew Invest, buying the brand late last year, it’s a beer that should really only be consumed on special occasions due to its rarity.
The boyf and I have managed to collect a reasonable number of Thomas Hardy’s Ales over the years², but it’s been a good wee while since we’ve had one. So when he decided he’d quite like to celebrate with one at his early birthday party, I was more than excited.
We cracked opened a bottle of the 2004 vintage. I’ve only tried one Thomas Hardy’s older than that – a 1999 vintage (the last brewed by the original brewery, Eldridge Pope) in late 2009 or early 2010, which tasted, to be frank, quite vile³.
But there were no such disappointments with the 2004. It poured a glorious clear, dark brown colour and looked ruby in the light. It gave off strong raisin, prune and caramel aromas, and tasted of sweet prunes, dark fruit, molasses and chocolate. I’ve had some delicious Thomas Hardy’s in the past, but this one was utter perfection.
There are several more 2004 vintages in the beer cellar, so it’ll be interesting to see if they get even better with age, or whether nine years is the optimum age to drink the beer. Either way, I look forward to collecting more bottles when production resumes – hopefully sooner rather than later.
¹ There is some argument over whether Thomas Hardy’s is a Barley Wine or an Old Ale, and whether the two styles are mutually exclusive. Beer writer Martyn Cornell writes about it all here. I’m using the term Barley Wine because that’s what the new owners of the brand call it on their website.
² In fact, the majority were collected while we were still students. Clearly we had our priorities right when it came to the inevitable ‘meat now or beer in several years’ quandary.
³ Possibly something to do with Eldridge Pope adjusting the recipe in the 90s – I remember the 1999 being a very clear, amber colour, tasting thin, salty and savoury. It’s the only Thomas Hardy’s Ale I’ve tried that I haven’t enjoyed.