the Olympics finished on Sunday and in a moment of heady excitement I decided it would be good to celebrate the event with one of my "stash" - a cavalcade of bottled beers from 1971 (yes, long before I was old enough to drink, or even born) til the present day, amassed since 1993.
One such bottle was a Gales Prize Old Ale from the last batch brewed in Horndean and thus corked. I had two so figured one could be sacrificed, having had them laid on their side (as per the label instructions) since 2005. A cursory glance at the label proclaimed it had been brewed that year and was best before March 2010. Well, I thought, its 9% for chrissakes. Surely it had the balls for the journey? And besides, whenever I caved in after 3 years and drank one it was invariably unbalanced and too "young". So this seemed a perfect chance to try a good one.
With the roar and razzmatazz of the Olympics blaring out of the TV behind me I set about opening the chilled beer. Not rate chilled you understand, but I had concerns that it might be fizzy. I broke the pinkish red plastic seal round the top and slightly indelicately removed the cork. There was little sound. Hmmm..
The aroma was predominantly sherry. As I breathed n a bit more there was a sharper stronger aroma like whisky, plus the sweetness, reminiscent faintly of cane sugar, and for a mad moment fruit salad sweets.
I poured it out flat as a millpond. Some carbonation was caused towards the end of the pour, although not knowing what to expect from the yeast it was eked out slowly so no gravity pushed the bubbles into the glass. I still don't think throwing it in would have created much bubbles, if that is even grammatically correct.
The colour was, well, sherry to be honest! Maybe brandy depending on the light. But with a darker brown shade more reminiscent of the beer it was supposed to be, with some attractive reddish hints.
The first taste was something of a slow motion slap across the face. I could see it coming, but couldn't avoid the massive sherry, tart fruit and residual alcohol smashing into me in one angry wave of tipsy bravado. Further tastes allowed the sugar to increase, or rather its sweetness to come through, and I detected candy, lavender sugar, treacle, and fighting unconvincingly at the back, some hops.
Later tastes revealed lemon sherbet and a taste I can only describe as the smell of leather (just trust me) and, regrettably, cardboard. I added the yeast half way down which only served to increase the sweetness but it was also mildly acidic and there seemed to be even more alcohol - certainly my complexion was telling me that this was no longer 9.0%.
The body was thin, there even seemed to be a little suggestion of water, almost like I hadn't dried the glass after rinsing, except I had. It was strange having a thin beer with such incredibly strong flavours.
So in conclusion, not a subtle beer, and not really a beer at all in terms of taste. More a sherry with a suggestion of malt and hops with sweet tart fruit and alcoholic flavours.
This is interesting since I don't think I've ever had a really good Gales corked beer. They've always been a bit muddled or eccentric or unbalanced, usually with only one prominent characteristic on display - I am thinking of 5 examples over the past 18 years. The best one was a celebration beer at around 7.0% which had a bit more subtlety to its flavours and was a bit more, well, beer.
That the Harveys Imperial Russian Stout that was brewed in the mid nineties and was undrinkable was blamed by the brewery on their contracting bottling to Gales says a lot, although perhaps more about Harveys, since it was their yeast which died in the bottle. It makes you wonder whether the passage of time clouds our memories of what was good beer, I mean, does it all have odd flavours and no carbonation? And it also begs the question, can we make good corked ale in Britain?
Wissey Valley managed it , at least I think they did! But really its not a British strongpoint - its got to ne Chimay who nailed it. So perhaps we once again have to look at how the Belgians do things.
In defence of the "old stagers" of brewing though, I'd like to try a bottle conditioned new world hopped IPA or Black IPA, or heavy hopped stout after 7 years to see how the more popular ingredients fared over time in the bottle. It would be really interesting to see if they could match classics like Thomas Hardy Ale.
To which end, I am, co-incidentally as it happens, hoping to try what I think is a 29 year old vintage next month. The 25 year was still carbonated and you could taste the hops. So already better than Gales, but might 29 years be a step too far?