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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Thomas Hardy's Ale

The more observant amongst you will have noticed that I have a passion for Thomas Hardy's Ale.

At the birth of CAMRA there were four classic bottled conditioned beers in the U.K.
Hardy’s Ale was one, the others being Gale’s Prize Old Ale, Courage Imperial Russian Stout and Guinness.

Russian Stout disappeared in 1993 and Guinness has not been bottle-conditioned for donkeys’ years. The name Prize Old Ale lives on but Gales’ has closed and new owners Fuller's brew it at Chiswick sans the iconic corked bottles. Hardy’s Ale limped on until 1999. Eldridge Pope couldn’t even be bothered producing a vintage for the Millennium.

The final vintage from Eldridge Pope
Thomas Hardy’s Ale was brewed to an impressive 12% strength. This robustness explains why it is still sought after today, over 10 years after the last bottles were filled.  More of a barley wine than an ale, (that isn’t a cue for an argument please), I’ve tasted examples from the mid 70s which had matured beautifully like vintage port. I suspect that corners were cut in the final years which don’t have the same depth of flavours. Note though, that I’ve rarely had a bad bottle no matter how decrepit or faded the label may look.


The prime reason that Hardy’s Ale was never a commercial success was poor marketing. The original commemorative vintage from 1968 had a sticker on the bottle stating ‘DO NOT OPEN BEFORE JULY 1969’. When the ale was revived as a regular brew in 1974 the sticker said ‘DO NOT OPEN BEFORE JUNE 1978’ and by 1979 it stated DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 1989. Yes, you were told not to drink it for a whole ten years!! What terrible fate would befall anyone who ignored this doom-laden warning is unclear, but it meant that Thomas Hardy’s Ale was a museum piece from the start. Many people bought a bottle or two to stash away as a souvenir for a future event but few people actually drank the stuff. I know that this is true because I’ve still got two bottles purchased in a London branch of Waitrose in 1988. Of course, this has become a blessing in disguise for a new generation of drinkers because there are still numerous bottles hidden away in nooks and crannies and which are regularly advertised for sale on eBay. I’ve learned that brewery employees were given cases of the ale in the 90s as gifts, presumably because they weren’t selling in the pubs and off licenses. A lot of these cases are still intact lurking in pantries and garages.  By various means I’ve managed to amass a collection of about 200 bottles which will keep me going for some time yet.
In the 80s the brewery presumably saw the error of its ways and merely advised that the ale would keep for 25 years. However, the damage had been done and the perception remained that the ale shouldn’t be drunk too young. Sales in Britain were rarely exceptional and it was the export market, in particular to the U.S. that allowed production to continue as long as it did.



My sort of party ¹
  The demise of Eldridge Pope saw the right to the Thomas Hardy’s Ale name purchased by the American company Phoenix Imports. There was much rejoicing when they commissioned O'Hanlon's with a brief to re-create the ale as faithfully as possible. This they did with details that included the much-loved neck medallions and individual bottle numbers which had both been lost as Eldridge Pope cut costs. However, the joy was short-lived as the new ale lasted only 4 years before O’Hanlon’s pulled the plug citing the expense of producing a specialist ale in small quantities. It is believed that they were pushed into this decision by advisors after taking part in a reality-type TV programme.

Given the increased interest in unusual and rare brews mostly of high alcoholic strength it is to be hoped that Phoenix will resurrect Hardy’s Ale for a second time in the none too distant future.


Photo courtesy of Stan Hieronymus


6 comments:

  1. Re O'Hanlon's decision to stop brewing THA, at least in terms of what was shown in the programme, if I remember right, they had pretty much made the decsion before they started filming, citing the enormous length of time the beer needed to remain in conditioning tank (i.e. 'locking up' a brewing vessel that could otherwise have been used many times to produce lower ABV beers).

    It's a real shame that once again such an iconic beer is no longer being brewed.

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  2. Given their reluctance to tie up a brewing vessel for so long with THA, I wonder then how O'Hanlon's are brewing their new release, the 12.9%abv Brewers Special Reserve? Perish the thought that they decided they could make just as a good a beer as THA but not pay Phoenix any licence fee for the iconography.

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  3. That is very interesting. I'm sure it is an excellent beer which I look forward to trying but it won't have the same cachet in the U.S. where the Hardy's Ale name has semi-mythical status.

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  4. I agree completely. I wonder if it's just the last batch that they refused to pay the licence for?

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  5. An interesting thought. I'll have to try a bottle.

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  6. Visited the Bridge Inn, Topsham on a CAMRA walkabout yesterday. Had the last third on draft of the O'Hanlons Special Reserve. Not usually a fan of Malty beers BUT would not have missed that experience. Just like drinking port. Wonderful.

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