It’s probably safe to say that most people know Thomas Hardy as the English poet and novelist. Literary buffs, in particular, revere him for such classics as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd. Beer geeks, however, salute Hardy for an entirely different reason: his namesake beer, Thomas Hardy’s Ale.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest vintage beers ever created, Thomas Hardy’s Ale was originally brewed by the now-defunct English brewery, Eldridge Pope. During a 1968 festival honoring the fortieth anniversary of Hardy’s passing in the brewery’s town of Dorchester, Brewmaster Ray Botting was inspired to create a special beer to commemorate the occasion. The result was a (then) massive barleywine, weighing in at 11.7 percent ABV, amber in color, probably cloyingly sweet at a syrupy 1.025 final gravity, and awash in English hops due to generous dry hopping.
And having designed the beer with aging in mind, the brewery slapped a label on the bottle stating, “This beer will improve if kept lying down at 55°F [13°C] and will last at least 25 years. DO NOT OPEN BEFORE JULY 1969.” Pint-sized bottles were sold for a whopping English pound, a substantial sum of money in 1968.
Being a “celebratory beer,” Thomas Hardy’s Ale seemed destined as a one-off until suddenly, in 1974, production resumed again. It was then brewed almost annually until 1999 when the brewery once again ceased its creation, citing high production costs.
Meanwhile, the Eldridge Pope bottles had begun developing a cult-like status because of the complex nature that the vintages took on over time. After ten-plus years, Hardy’s starts to resemble a fine Madeira or port more than a beer, with flavors such as apricot, fig, pipe tobacco, molasses, umami, and leather all sharing the stage.
Lo and behold, Hardy’s could not be stopped, and the ale reappeared in 2003 when it was brewed by O’Hanlon’s Brewery, an outfit commissioned by the American beer importer Phoenix Imports to resurrect Hardy’s. But with history seemingly damned to repeat itself, the third coming was short-lived and production was halted in 2008. The cause was again high production costs associated with the beer, which requires copious amount of malts and hops, an ultra-long boil, and a lengthy maturation time. But although the O’Hanlon-era bottles are still young (seven to twelve years old, depending on the vintage), they’re proving to age quite well, with similar notes of dried fruit, cigarbox, and Oloroso sherry.
And then we arrive at 2012 when the rights to Hardy’s (along with the recipe) were again purchased—this time by Italian beer importer, Interbrau, the outfit responsible for making available in Italy such products as Founders, Sierra Nevada, and Lagunitas.
It was Interbrau Co-owner, Michele Vecchiato, who was inspired to rescue this great beer, explaining, “We can’t accept that one of the most important beers would be lost forever. It sounds banal, but this is the main reason. It’s a business project, of course, but driven only by passion. We discovered Thomas Hardy’s Ale in 2008, exactly when O’Hanlon determined to stop the production. We were thinking about the possibility to import this great beer, and we discovered that it wouldn’t be possible…. This [ignited] the spark with Thomas Hardy’s Ale.”
A brewing team was assembled in England, and three test batches followed until the final result met Interbrau’s expectations, and bottles could be shipped off to industry insiders for a sneak peek. When Hardy’s is finally available to the public, it will be in 11.2-ounce (331 ml) bottles with a label very similar to the classic Eldridge Pope version. Yet this generation offers something that is unique and that has a distinctly Italian twist (see tasting notes). With a late 2015 U.S. release, only time will tell how these bottles fare against their forefathers’ impressive legacy.
Tasting Notes: Thomas Hardy’s Ale (2014)
Appearance: Light orange with a wisp of white head.
Aroma: Strong alcohol presence, but in a fun, fruity way. Young white wine, honeysuckle, and a distinct herbal aroma strikingly reminiscent of Amaro (an Italian liqueur served as an after-dinner digestif) with hints of caramelized fennel.
Taste: Sweet caramel malt profile, but not cloying. A substantial hops bitterness and the same herbal presence encountered in the aroma. There is an earthy mineral note similar to young JW Lees Harvest Ale. A warming alcohol presence, but time has already made this dangerously drinkable.
Overall: Comparable to young versions of previous Hardy’s, but with a unique herbal presence. The beer was not made with any special ingredients, so these flavors must be yeast-derived, and it will be interesting to see how they age. While Interbrau’s version differs from previous Hardy incarnations, the beer has the alcohol profile and residual sugar level that suggest a strong potential for aging.