The latest, 2008 edition of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, the strong bottle-conditioned beer from the West Country, has just hit the shelves, with a special label celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first brewing of THA back in 1968.
That first brew, made by Eldridge Pope of Dorchester in Devon, was itself commemorating the 40th anniversary of the death of the novelist Thomas Hardy in 1928. Hardy lived in Dorchester, set one of his best-known novels (The Mayor of Casterbridge) in the town, eulogised the town’s beer in another novel, The Trumpet Major, and was a friend of the Popes, owners of the brewery. When the brewery refurbished a local pub called The Trumpet Major in 1968, it celebrated with a special 12 per cent abv beer.
It was another six years before Thomas Hardy’s Ale was brewed again, but the beer was produced in both 1974 and 1975, and from 1977 onwards Eldridge Pope brewed and bottled the beer every year. The last brewing in Dorchester took place in 1999, and the brewery closed a few years later.
Fortunately the American beer wholesaler Phoenix Importers, which had been selling Thomas Hardy’s Ale in the United States since the first brewing in 1968, managed to commission a new small brewer in the West Country, O’Hanlon’s of Whimple, near Exeter, in Devon, to recreate the beer in 2003 and it has been making the beer every year since then.
Waitrose supermarkets are currently doing a five-for-four special on the 2008 THA, which at £3.49 full-price, is worth investing in, so since journeyman journalism currently takes me near a branch of middle-class England’s favourite food outlet I bought a stash. I don’t have any 1968 versions (the oldest I own are a couple of bottles of the 1975) but I did have a bottle of the 1988, and in honour of the 40th anniversary brew I thought it would be fun to see how it compared with the 20th anniversary version.
Eldridge Pope’s THAs were always pretty undrinkable for the first couple of years after they were bottled, being dominated by meaty, Bovril flavours and heavy, hard-to-ferment malt sugars until the surviving yeast sediment had been given a chance to break down the bigger carbohydrate chains. The O’Hanlon’s version, however, now 11.7 per cent abv, has always been drinkable from the off, and this is even more true of the 2008 than earlier THAs from Whimple. It began with a slight sourness on the nose, but the flavours were deep and rich: passionfruit and mandarin, oily, peppery, a big, mouth-filling beer with good conditioning.
The 1988, which poured much darker than the modern incarnation (apparently Eldridge Pope took an all-pale malt wort and boiled it for hours to drive off water and raise the gravity, caramelising and darkening the wort at the same time), was, after two decades, one of the sourest THAs I’ve drunk, though there was still enough sweetness left for it to be very drinkable. (There was little or no yeast sediment evident in the bottle: whether this meant that souring organisms were able to thrive better, I don’t know.) It poured almost entirely flat, with still some slight Bovril on the nose, and hints of port, toffee, caramel oranges and a slight chocolateness.
Drinking old beers is a lottery: I has a 1992 THA last month, and it was very dull, with little character. The 1988 was certainly worth opening, but another bottle of the same vintage might be very different. The 2007 THAs from O’Hanlons are, in my opinion, drinking very well now: come back in 2028 and I very much hope to be able to tell you what the current version is like after two decades in storage.