Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Thomas Hardy’s Ale: Background on a classic

Thomas Hardy’s AleHere are two of my Oakland Tribune/MediaNews Group columns about Thomas Hardy’s Ale. One UPDATE: Nothing has changed since 2006. Thomas Hardy’s Ale is still being brewed; it’s sold almost everywhere. But there’s still no distributor in the San Francisco Bay Area willing to take on this classic English ale. Damn.

Thomas Hardy’s Ale: The One That Got Away

This is a sad story about a great beer, saved only by the extreme efforts of an importer in Endicott City, MD. only to be frustrated by distance and America’s weird, post-Prohibition “three-tier” system that separates brewers and importers from their retail customers by a middle-tier system of distributors.

You and I, the beer drinkers, only see the beer in bottles at our favorite store or on tap at our local. But there’s a vast system of distribution behind the scenes. When Prohibition – the national experiment banning the sale of alcohol – ended in 1933, the feds and the states, not wanting to recreate a system where brewers owned the pubs where their beer was consumed, created the three-tier system.

All but the smallest brewers and all importers were forbidden to sell their products directly to retailers. Instead “distributors” received the product from producers and importers and sold to retailers. If all you’re selling is Budweiser or some other mass market beer, then the system works just fine. There’s really no selling involved, nor is their need for passion about the product, although I’m sure that good, passionate salespeople are a plus for Bud & Co. too. The rub comes when the distribution systems handles small volume craft beers and imports. There are fewer and fewer distributors and each is loaded with very fine craft brands, so all but the very best can get lost in the shuffle.

Which brings us to poor old Thomas Hardy’s Ale. Thomas Hardy’s Ale was first brewed in 1968 by the Eldrige Pope Brewery in Dorchester to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of author Thomas Hardy, “Return of thE Native”, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” Much of Hardy’s work was set in the moors in England’s West Country around Dorchester.

It was a natural. Borrowing a quote from British beer writer Roger Protz

“Thomas Hardy once described the beer of Dorchester as “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 in taste; but, finally, rather heavy.” ”

How could I say it better. When Thomas Hardy’s Ale was first made – it was the strongest beer in Britain: 11.25 percent alcohol by volume. It slowly became a cult beer in England.

In 1986, George Saxon, of Phoenix Imports, Ellicott City, Maryland, began importing Thomas Hardy’s Ale. I got my first sample in 1987: we drank one bottle and put the other in the cellar, where it has remained. But in 1996, the Pope family closed the brewery to concentrate on running pubs. The brand was sold to someone else who created the Thomas Hardy Brewery. But the brewery closed in 2000.

George Saxon had been the beer’s best customer. So he scrambled and wound up buying the brand. Then, he found another brewer, O’Hanlon’s Brewing, Whimple, Devon, England. Since 2001, they’ve been producing the beer, much of it for sale in the U.S. by Phoenix Imports. A great ending to a valient effort by a guy who loves beer? Not quite.

There’s the knotty distributor problem. George can’t sell the beer personally, he must depend on distributors and these days, strong beers are common, Tom Hardy often gets lost in the distributor morass.

Here in the Bay Area, the distributor, Conquistador, has closed. Saxon’s only California distributor is in Southern California. So the only buyer for the beer in the Bay Area, is Beverages and More.

The last version BevMo has is the 2004. I found a bottle in the Orinda, CA. store on Friday and bought it. Today, BevMo’s beer person, Amy Guttierrez says the entire chain has 15 bottles in stock. Three more in Orinda, a dozen at the Walnut Creek store. That’s it.

A saga of a champion…

By William Brand
Thomas Hardy’s Ale label January 1 really was the dawn of the new millennium, a very special day that we will never see again. But, nevertheless, I did not drink my Thomas Hardy’s Bareleywine Style Ale, vintage 1987.

Just before New Year’s I wandered out to my “beer cellar” _ actually, it’s an old refrigerator from student days with a fading “Guinness Is Good For You!” sign pasted on the front. But to me, it’s a beer cellar.

My idea was that it was finally time to consume my treasured bottle of this rare English ale and what better time than the turn of the century. I couldn’t do it. Like the millennium, this is a beer that may never come our way again and I needed a more festive occasion than a change in the calendar. The latest, 1999 vintage is still in stores _ but the brewery has gone outof business and it’s still uncertain if there ever will be another vintage.
Thomas Hardy’s Ale was first brewed in 1968 by the Eldrige Pope Brewery in Dorchester to commemorate the 100th anniversary of author Thomas Hardy’s birth.

Much of Hardy’s work was set in the moors in England’s West Country around Dorchester. When it was made _ it was the strongest beer in Britain: 11.25 percent alcohol by volume. It slowly became a cult beer in England.

In 1986, George Saxon, of Phoenix Imports,Ellicott City, Maryland, began importing Thomas Hardy’s Ale. I got my first sample in 1987: we drank one bottle and put the other in the cellar, where it has remained.

Wine lovers may scoff. But beers like this precious ale can age and change, just like a fine Cabernet. Brewed with Maris Otter malt and finished with Fuggles and East Kent Goldings, Thomas Hardy’s is not pastuerized. It’s bottle-conditioned, a bit of fresh yeast is added to each bottle so fermentation continues slowy over a long period.
In the bottle, the beer becomes drier and drier as the yeast consumes the remaining unfermented malt. The hops also slowly fade and the beer slowly becomes a rich, intoxicating beverage much like a fine sherry or perhaps a Madeira.

Over the years, Saxon has become the American godfather of this elegant brew. Because of his efforts, the beer has become famous among American beer lovers. So when the Eldridge Pope Brewery went out of business three years ago, Saxon arranged for production at another brewery.

That arrangement lasted through 1999. Because Eldrige Pope stillowns the brand name, there were complications. Saxon said he’s headed to England soon and it hopes the beer can be brewed again.

In the meantime, it still can be found at stores with large beer stocks, but one must look hard. It’s in an 11.2 ounce bottle and sells for $2.95. Now that’s a bargain.

For now, my lone bottle happily remains on the shelf in my cellar and I consoled myself this year with a 1995 bottle of Code Blue _ the strong, 10 percenter from Pacific Coast Brewing here in Oakland. It’s less sweet and malty than it once was _ but it’s a powerful beer and just right to toast the milennium.
Since Thomas Hardy Ale made its first appearance in the U.S., a number of craft brewers have made their own barleywines. Here are some suggestions, all are in 12 ounce bottles.

<p> Code Blue, Pacific Coast Brewing. Four Stars. Available only at the brewpub, 906 Washington St., Oakland. 12 ounce bottles, $5.

<p> Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico. Four Stars. Reaches stores each February, about $1.50. This is the American barleywine classic. Strong, dark and delicious, usually around 11 percent alcohol by volume.

<p> Old Foghorn, Anchor Brewing, San Francisco. Four Stars. Available year-round. Malt melts like honey in the mouth, balanced by Cascade hops. A smooth, powerful elixir., about 8.7 percent alcohol by volume, about $1.50.

<p> Old Crustacean, Rogue Brewing, Newport, Ore. Killer hops dominate this darkly delicious brew. By comparision, Budweiser has 3.9 percent alcohol and 11 International Bitterness Units. Old Crustacean averages about 11 percent alcohol and has 80 IBU. Whew! Look for the 1998 or 1999 rather than the newest version. This is a beer that is meant to age. Three Stars. About $2, 7 ounce bottle.