This article was originally written in January 2007 for the now-defunct food and drink website Gremolata. It was re-published here in September 2011, but back-dated to appear in the blog archives close to its original publication date.
Logic generally dictates that beer is best when fresh. Cask ale â€“ which is beer in its purest, unadulterated form â€“ will go off within a few days of the cask being tapped. Keg beer will last longer, but even the pasteurisation and forced carbonation can’t stop it from going stale after a few weeks. And if you’ve ever had to politely force down a lager that’s been sitting in the back of Aunt Shirley’s fridge since last year’s Christmas party, then you’re well aware of the effect that time can have on bottled brew.
But there are always exceptions that prove the rule, and when it comes to beer, there may be more than you think. Many styles of beer, including India Pale Ale, Bock and Imperial Stout, were created to last for months before consumption, and even beers that are not specifically intended to be kept have been known to age well. In one extreme example, a cache of around 250 bottles of beer dating back as far as 1869 was recently uncovered in the cellars of the White Shield Brewery in Burton-On-Trent, and those who have tasted some of the finds have declared them to be more than palatable.
While they may not be stocking 140-year-old bottles, some higher end restaurants have started taking the idea of vintage beer seriously, and have added some well-chosen bottles to their cellars. New York’s Gramercy Tavern recently brought in Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver â€“ a well-known expert on pairing food and beer â€“ to help assistant beverage director Kevin Barry in compiling a list of vintage beers and ciders to offer their customers. And it probably goes without saying that Toronto’s beerbistro has some somewhat rare bottles available for those who are willing to splurge a little.
While there are now a lot of breweries crafting big beers that are meant for aging, the granddaddy of today’s vintage beer scene is undoubtedly Thomas Hardy’s Ale. First brewed in 1968 by Eldridge Pope Brewery at the request of the Thomas Hardy Society to mark the 40th anniversary of the author’s death, the strong Barley Wine was then brewed on an annual basis from 1974 until 1999, when Eldridge Pope shut down operations. The brand was revived in 2003 by Phoenix Imports, an American distributor that had been bringing Thomas Hardy’s to the US since the very first vintage was brewed. They contracted O’Hanlon’s, a family brewery in Devon, England, to start brewing the beer again using the original recipe, and the annual tradition was restored.
At a trade tasting in New York City last fall, I had a chance to sample a recent vintage, and I found it to be exceptional. It poured a still, slightly hazy ruby-brown, and had a huge, sweet aroma of fruitcake with rich whiskey cream sauce and toffee. The mouthfeel was soft and full, and the flavour was very complex, with notes of port, whisky, dried fruit, blood orange and more, leading into a long, warm, lingering finish.
Of course, for Ontario beer drinkers, it generally takes some travelling to savour this rare brew, as it has rarely been available in this province. So there was much rejoicing recently when it was announced that Roland + Russell, a fine food, wine & spirits importer in Burlington, had added O’Hanlon’s to their import portfolio. A limited order of several different Thomas Hardy’s vintages was brought in for beerbistro, and once word got out via Bar Towel and The Toronto Star that they were accepting private orders for cases of the latest vintage at an astoundingly reasonable price ($112.80 per 24 x 8.5 oz), they were deluged with orders. If you didn’t get in on the advance order, there will be some cases available on consignment for a slightly higher price once the shipment arrives, and you will also be able to find it at some of Toronto’s beer-friendly bars and restaurants such as Volo and Smokeless Joe.
It’s worth noting that R+R are also representing the rest of the O’Hanlon’s line in Ontario, with an assortment of their excellent bottle conditioned ales â€“ including Double Champion Wheat Beer, Royal Oak Traditional Bitter, Original Port Stout, and Yellowhammer Golden Ale â€“ available for private ordering and at some establishments. And proving that they are serious about entering the speciality beer market, R+R have just announced that they will soon be repping Austria’s Schloss Eggenberg Brewery who, like O’Hanlon’s, are known for reviving a classic strong vintage beer: Samichlaus, a 14% Doppelbock that was once the strongest beer in the world. This is all very good news indeed for Ontario’s beer aficionados.