Historic Beer Birthday: Thomas Hardy

Today is the birthday of English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (June 2, 1840-January 11, 1928). Hardy is best known for his novels Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895).


So what does he have to do with beer. Well besides mentioning it in his work, it’s because there’s a Thomas Hardy Ale that was originally created in 1968 by the Eldridge Pope Brewery to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Thomas Hardy’s death, which happened to coincide with the renovation of a pub in Dorchester named for one of Hardy’s novels, the “Trumpet Major,” first published in 1880.

The 1968 nip bottle.

There’s a great quote in the book, which describes a beer, and that was what they used as inspiration to create the beer that bears Hardy’s name. A portion of the quote was on the original 1968 label, but here’s a fuller version of it.

“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 masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious county families it was not despised. Anybody brought up for being drunk and disorderly in the streets of its natal borough, had only to prove that he was a stranger to the place and its liquor to be honourably dismissed by the magistrates, as one overtaken in a fault that no man could guard against who entered the town unawares.”

Eldridge Pope created “an ale matured in oak casks, very strong, capable of improving better taste with age.” After the first vintage in 1968, beginning in 1974 the second was brewed and a vintage-dated version was made each subsequent year until 1999.


Another brewery, the O’Hanlon Brewery, picked up brewing Thomas Hardy Ale in 2003, and produced annual versions until 2008. Unfortunately, they went bankrupt in 2011, and reopened later as the Hanlon Brewery.

One of the last vintages, from 2007.

When they began reproducing it again in 2003, a new website for Thomas Hardy Ale was created, and they tell the story of the ale:

First produced in 1968, Thomas Hardy’s Ale is barley wine produced just once yearly, with annual vintages in limited quantities. It quickly became an icon among beer and took on legendary status due to its sudden disappearance. Now, the legend is back…

1968 bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale“At the moment, all rights are in the hands of the American importer George Saxon, who – we hope – won’t take long putting Thomas Hardy’s back on the market”, as stated by Adrian Tierney-Jones to conclude his comment on Thomas Hardy’s Ale in the book “1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die”. In the words of one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon beer writers, we can clearly perceive a bit of melancholy for the disappearance of Thomas Hardy’s Ale from the global market.

Why such melancholy? Each day, worldwide, tens or even hundreds of thousands of bottles of various beers are produced, yet Thomas Hardy’s was unique. A real, proper icon of beer drinking, almost a cult object.
The beer was created way back in 1968 with one clear intention: to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the dead of the brilliant writer Thomas Hardy, author of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and other important novels. In an equally famous tale, “The Trumpet Major”, Hardy spoke of a strong Dorchester beer, defining it “the most beautiful colour an artist could possibly desire, as bright as an autumn sunset”…

The Eldridge Pope brewery decided to try and create that beer Hardy mentioned in his writing. It had to be a special beer, with a high alcohol content, a consistent and sensuous body and long lasting and resilient aroma, or rather, capable of lasting over time (25 years, according to the brewery). Beer created for big occasions and therefore only produced once a year, left at length to mature in wood and lastly, brought to light in numbered bottles, with the year of production, the batch and the quantity produced clearly visible.

Thomas Hardy’s Ale quickly became hugely famous. The quality of the product combined with its exclusivity was an explosive mix. The individual years soon became the object of vertical tastings, like those held for important Langhe or Bordeaux wines and prices went sky high. However, producing Thomas Hardy’s was very expensive and making it meant sacrificing time and means for beer intentionally produced in limited quantities. In 1999 Eldridge Pope ceased production and, for the first time, Thomas Hardy’s appeared to have been confined to memory or auctions. Its disappearance, however, further reinforced its fame and lovers of this stylish leader of barley wines called for its return. And Thomas Hardy’s was back.

This time, starting in 2003, the O’Hanlon brewery created it. The same recipe, same immense work and the same exclusivity. Another six, prestigious years followed for a beer by now renowned around the world. Yet, for a second time, this excellent beer disappeared. And this time…

Forever? No, the good news is that Thomas Hardy’s Ale is to be revived in all its greatness, while maintaining all its extraordinary and unique peculiarities: vintage production is on English soil with limited quantities produced, its slight hints of dark fruit, turf and roast malt and its flavour that at times recalls a fine port or quality brandy.

The 1990 vintage bottle.

It was one of the earliest modern beers to be vintage dated, at least it’s one of the earliest I’m aware of. The earliest year I’ve tasted in 1977, and I was lucky enough once to do a vertical tasting of several vintages of the barley wine. I still have a few bottles from the early 1990s, including a 1990 bottle, in my cellar. I’m waiting for the perfect time to share them.

As for the future, it’s apparently coming back yet again, this time by an Italian brewery. Patrick Dawson wrote about it in April for Craft Beer & Brewing magazine, with an article entitled The Rebirth of Thomas Hardy Ale.

Thomas Hardy in 1911.

Typology #1: American Barleywine

This is the first in what I hope will become an on-going monthly exploration of different kinds of beer, known as Typology Tuesday. This month’s type of beer is American Barley Wine.
Barleywines are one of the first styles that I became enamored of when I first moved to California in 1985. Before that, I don’t remember being able to find many of them, even in New York City, where I lived in the late 1970s. I vaguely recall a bottle of Thomas Hardy, but wish I could remember how it tasted. In mid-80s Bay Area — specifically the South Bay — I discovered Liquor Barn, then still owned by Safeway. It had the best selection of beers I’d seen up to that point, even more than Brewski’s in the East Village. One of the beers that caught my eye early on was a little nipper, a mere 6.4 oz, of Anchor Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale. This I remember.


In fact, I still have a couple of the small bottles in my cellar, a more recent gift from a friend at Anchor. I’m not sure how old they are, but they bring back fond memories. After Anchor, Bigfoot was the other barleywine I started to see each year. It predated my emigrating to the left coast by two years, having debuted in 1983. Old Foghorn uses Cascade hops, while Bigfoot uses Chinook for bittering, but is finished with Cascade, Centennial, and more Chinook. Anchor was going for a more English style, but the Cascade hops upended that somewhat. Bigfoot has no such illusions, and goes straight for the throat with big hop character.

And there were many more, and growing, even in those heady early days in the latter half of the 1980s. In 1993, Dave Keene launched the Toronado Barleywine Festival, though it was a rather small affair. There were just three beers — barley wines from Anchor, Marin Brewing and Sierra Nevada — on a small table in the back of the pub. It quickly grew to national prominence, eventually including 60 or more different barley wines, with BJCP-certified judging. For a number of years, winning the Toronado Barleywine Festival was as prestigious as a gold medal at GABF. Keene knew he was on to something when San Diego brewers, whose beer was not even sold in the market, were begging to be included in the festival. Unfortunately, the logistics of double-blind judging of over 60 beers overwhelmed the available space and resources, and with the chaos that has become SF Beer Week, Dave stopped the judging portion of the festival in 2010, and this year suspended the festival altogether.

But it was the first niche festival I ever attended, I immediately loved the idea of featuring just one style of beer and being able to taste so many different example at one time. When I first started going to the Great American Beer Festival in 1992, one of my favorite things to do was to choose a style and then walk the hall and try every single example being poured. You could actually do that probably through the early 2000s, but increasingly only with less common styles. Nowadays it’s almost impossible unless you decided to focus on something particularly obscure.

But the barleywine festival was something special. I found the idea of a festival with only one kind of beer invigorating. It was always a thrill, and Dave was a gracious host and put on a hell of a party.

Dave Keene in the back room of the Toronado during the barleywine festival in 2008.

You could actually try all of the beers before they ran out, but you couldn’t do it alone. It took a group of dedicated people to stake out a table, and took hours of effort, perseverance and patience. I did actually accomplish that goal several times. Here, for example, are all of the barleywines we sampled at the festival in 2007.

Judging the final round in 2007, sitting next to Jamil Zainasheff, who now owns Heretic Brewing.

Once I started judging at the festival, it became even more amazing, and was something I looked very forward to doing each year. In the early days, it was pretty easy to tell the difference between an English-style barleywine and an American one. Malt equaled English, Hops equaled American. Not always, but enough of the time to make it a pretty reliable rule of thumb. But then came the Double IPA, which shares quite a few similarities with American-style barleywine, and threw that into turmoil. Whenever a hoppy example of a barleywine was discussed, inevitably someone would suggest it was, or might be, an Imperial IPA rather than a barleywine. This often led to some heated discussions, some useful, some not so much. But it became less settled what the distinctions were, beyond the slight ingredient differences, primarily the malt build. They’re certainly more well understood today, but when it comes to tasting them, it’s still often fairly difficult to easily identify one from the other. It’s certainly still an issue when judging the style. It even came up earlier this month sampling 37 barleywines for the next issue of the Celebrator Beer News. But it’s hard to avoid that the style has had to evolve and the two — American barleywine and Imperial IPA — will continue to further divide so that the two styles will become (hopefully) more easily discernible through simple sensory analysis, a.k.a. drinking them.

The barleywines at the Toronado Barleywine Festival in 2013.

Alaska Barleywine Festival 2015 Winners

Here are the winners from this weekend’s Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage, Alaska.

  1. St. Elias Brewing’s Moose Juice, Soldotna, Alaska
  2. Midnight Sun Brewing’s Termination Dust Belgian-Style Barley Wine, Anchorage, Alaska
  3. Lagunitas Brewing’s Olde Gnarlywine Barley Wine, Petaluma, California

And the Best Winter Beer:

Congratulations to all the winners. Thanks again to Tom Dalldorf from the Celebrator Beer News, for sending me the winners.


Toronado Barleywine Festival 2013

Yesterday was the 20th annual Toronado Barleywine Festival, the original SF Beer Week event, that predates our beer week by fifteen years. I arrived a little late, sad to say, because Porter had his little league tryouts in the morning, but for at least the fourth year in a row, my luck held. When I arrived, it was already in full swing.


Luckily, I found Sean Paxton holding down Matt Bonney‘s table near the front of the pub.


The table already had a full compliment of all forty barley wines. Since Sean was looking to go roaming himself, I graciously agreed to take over table babysitting duties, which allowed me the opportunity to try every one of this year’s barley wines.


There were some very good, even great, ones, of course, and a number of decent beers, and a few that weren’t as good as one might have hoped.


But over all, I think my favorite barley wine of the day was Mad River’s John Barleycorn, which in many ways has become the epitome of an American-style barley wine for me, and seems to get better every year. Other stand-outs included Heretic’s Dead Weight, Moylan’s Old Blarney, Drake’s Jolly Roger and Anderson Valley’s Horn of the Beer. I also enjoyed Bear Republic’s Old Scoutter’s 2010, Berryessa’s Cliff’s Fiscal and Widmer’s Old Embalmer.


The back room, which is normally only used for special events (and Washoe’s) was configured in a new way this year, which seemed to allow more people to taste, with one side having long picnic tables and the other a place to stand and try the beers with a long table running the length to hold multiple barley wines. This also made the middle wider and easier to traverse than in previous years.


All in all, another great beer festival, with some spectacular barley wines. But if you didn’t get a chance to go on Saturday, don’t dispair, the barley wines will be there at least until Monday, and some will probably be hanging around a little longer, until they run out.


Alaska Barleywine Festival 2013 Winners

Here are the winners from this weekend’s Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage, Alaska.

  1. Anchorage Brewing Barley Wine, Anchorage, Alaska
  2. Firestone Walker Sucaba, Paso Robles, California
  3. Black Raven Old Bird Brain Barley Wine, Redmond, Washington

And the Best Winter Beer:

Congratulations to all the winners. Thanks again to Tom Dalldorf from the Celebrator Beer News, for sending me the winners.


Alaska Barleywine Festival 2012 Winners

Here are the winners from this weekend’s Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage, Alaska.

  1. Black Raven Brewing, Redmond, Washington
  2. Firestone Walker Brewing, Paso Robles, California
  3. Silver Gulch Brewing & Bottling, Fairbanks, Alaska

And the Best Winter Beer:

  • Kodiak Island Brewing, Kodiak, Alaska

Congratulations to all the winners. Thanks to Tom Dalldorf from the Celebrator Beer News, for sending me the winners.

Hard Liver 2010

On Saturday, the 8th annual Hard Liver Barleywine Fest began at Brouwer’s Cafe in Seattle, Washington. People started queuing in line at 9:00 a.m. for the eleven o’clock opening and the line ran up Phinney almost to 36th Street. There were 50 different barley wines and 12 more different vintages for a total of 62 available beers to sample.

Brouwer's on Hard Liver day
Brouwer’s Cafe on Hard Liver Day.

Tables filled with sheets of barleywine while the line for beer behind snaked from the bar
Like the Toronado Barleywine Festival, people camp out at tables to sample and discuss the barley wines, with many managing to work their way through all of the beers.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this has become one of my favorite niche festivals. Brouwer’s is doing a great job with this barley wine festival and it continues to grow each year with more beers and greater attendance. What many people don’t realize is that it’s not just Saturday, but will continue through the entire next week, until all the barley wines run out. So don’t think you missed it, there’s still time to check out most of the barley wines, which are listed below.

Below is a slideshow of the 2010 Hard Liver Barleywine Fest. This Flickr gallery is best viewed in full screen. To view it that way, after clicking on the arrow in the center to start the slideshow, click on the button on the bottom right with the four arrows pointing outward on it, to see the photos in glorious full screen. Once in full screen slideshow mode, click on “Show Info” to identify each photo.

Meanwhile, upstairs we deliberated on the final eight
The Final Eight Barley Wines

Barley Wines Available

2009 vintage unless otherwise noted
Bold = Winners / Italics = Reached Final Round

  • Alaskan Big Nugget 2008, 09
  • Anacortes Old Sebastes [3rd Place Winner]
  • Anchor Old Foghorn
  • Anderson Valley Horn of the Beer
  • Avery Hog Heaven 2006, 09
  • Beer Valley Highway to Ale
  • Big Sky Old Blue Hair 2008, 10 [2nd Place Winner, 2008]
  • Black Raven Old Birdbrain
  • Boulder Beer Killer Penguin
  • Boundary Old Boundary
  • Deschutes Mirror Mirror
  • Dicks 2005
  • Dogfish Head Olde School 2008
  • Elliot Bay Pro-Am
  • Elysian Cyclops 2008, 09, 10
  • Firestone Walker Abacus [Honorable Mention]
  • Flying Dog Horn Dog 2008, 09
  • Full Sail Old Boardhead 2008
  • Glacier Brewhouse Old Woody [1st Place Winner]
  • Great Divide Old Ruffian Barley 2008, 09
  • Green Flash
  • Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws
  • Hales Rudyards Rare 2007
  • Hood Canal Breidablik
  • HUB Noggin Floggin
  • Lagunitas Olde Gnarleywine 2008
  • Left Hand Widdershins 2008
  • Lost Abbey Angel’s Share Bourbon
  • Lost Abbey Angel’s Share Brandy 2008
  • Lost Coast Fogcutter
  • Mad River John Barleycorn
  • Moylans Old Blarney
  • Ninkasi Critical Hit
  • North Coast Old Stock Ale 2007, 09
  • Pike Old Bawdy 2006, 07, 08, 09
  • Port Townsend Barleywine 2007
  • Port Townsend Barleywine Wood Firkin
  • Ram Mallwalker
  • Redhook Treblehook
  • Rogue Old Crustacean XS 2008, 09
  • Scuttlebutt Old #1 Barleywine
  • Sierra Nevada Bigfoot 1996, 2009
  • Speakeasy Old Godfather
  • Stone Old Guardian 2010
  • Three Skulls Barleywine
  • Victory Old Horizontal