My birthday today, looking for something to appropriately mark the occasion, and realizing that, you know, the old stuff just could end up being enjoyed at some fantastic wake someday if I don't actually start consuming the stuff, so.... I start reaching into one of the two Thomas Hardy's boxes, both of which hold a wild variety of vintage stuff, and the first random grab is a 1989 bottle of J.W. Lees Harvest Ale. Twenty years old. Out it comes.
This beer is one of the epic British barleywines, and probably on every serious beer lover's "beers to try before you die" list, right up there with Thomas Hardy's Ale and George Gale's Prize Old Ale. This beer is brewed once a year from the first harvest of English two-row Maris Otter barley and East Kent Golding hops, with a special yeast strain. J.W. Lees Harvest Ale is released on December 1st and runs about 11.5 percent ABV. The years may have been unkind to this particular bottle, however. Michael Jackson's 1995 notes on this particular vintage report an "orange colour," but this one pours an extremely dense red, almost porter colour. Only the faintest hint of carbonation remained. The nose is a smoky blend of port, tobacco, raisins, and damp leather. The flavor is dry and similarly smoky, lacking the toffee-sweet notes typical of Hardy's or other barleywines. The body, at 11.5% ABV, is more reminiscent of a lighter dry merlot or cabernet. The flavour keeps coming back to dry leather, oak, and pipe tobacco--not necessarily bad, mind you, but a let-down if you're seeking the butterscotch-like richness of fresher barleywines. The finish is tannic and slightly bitter. Bottle has a heavy dose of sediment.
Verdict: held too long. I would polish off any vintages this old if you have them, or hold them for a vertical tasting. I'm estimating ten to fifteen years would be the maximum for this.
I'm getting some munchies for dinner, then maybe moving on to some more libations. Hey, did Jenny just walk by with eggnog? Hmmm, do I have something to add to that commercial non-alcoholic stuff?.......
A couple hours later, I found two bottles of 1999 vintage. Let's see if my hypothesis is correct.......
Pours with a rich, extravagant head. Bright deep mahogany colour. Lush malty nose, promising classic barleywine flavours. Mild but firm effervescence, fresh and sweet palate of toffeed malt, what Michael Jackson described as "juicy 'barley sugars.'" Flavour profile akin to an overly-sweet Scottish wee heavy as interpreted by western American brewpubs and micros, with chewy texture balanced by appropriate but still subtle hop bitterness. Notes of tanned leather, brown sugar and buttered toast, tea, and a hint of woodiness, either oak and/or allspice or mace.
Seriously, compared to the last one, I'm having trouble finishing this one. In spite of the winter season, cold weather, etc., this seemingly has enough sugar in it to induce a diabetic coma. The final sips dry out a bit, however, with notes of prune and sherry on the back.
Verdict: a definite winner, albeit so rich I would make plans to share even a 275-ml bottle with another person, at least.