Masters Table 1998
By Adrian Tierney-Jones
One upon a time, anyone who had access to a bushel of
malt and a handful of hops brewed their own beer and what
they made and drank changed with the seasons. Ordinary beer
was quaffed throughout most of the year but, as the days
got shorter, our beer-drinking forbears warmed their hearts
with much stronger ales, the descendants of todays
winter ales and barley wines.
These are beer styles which are very close cousins in
the family of malts and hops, standing out from the pale
ales, brown ales, stouts and bitters of everyday drinking
by virtue of their complex, blockbusting tastes and high
alcohol content this latter factor gives them a definite
warming character and means they can be laid down to mature
and improve with age.
Since the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) helped save what
we call real ale, ie traditional cask-conditioned
ales, from extinction in the 1970s, the amount of winter
ales and barley wines being brewed has increased. Available
in either bottle or by handpump at your local inn, they
are a style of beer worth hunting out.
Although they have different names, winter ales (also called
old ales, strong ales and winter warmers) and barley wines
are close enough in character to cause a lot of head-scratching
among beer connoisseurs. Where does one start and the other
The main difference seem to be that barley wines (which
have nothing to do with wine) are stronger than winter ales
sometimes. Take Fullers barley wine Golden
Pride, a tremendous 8.5%, as strong as many German wines.
Contrast that with Youngs deliciously fruity and malty
Winter Warmer at 5% and Adnams superbly balanced blend of
roast malt and fruit, Old Ale, a mere stripling at 4.1%.
Then again theres Robinsons gorgeous Old Tom
which weighs in at 8.5%; this is described as a strong
ale. Its enough to make you sign the pledge!
There is also a slight variation in the colours of the
beers. Winter ales are generally dark ranging from the blackness
of stout to a solid, chestnut brown with reddish tinges.
Barley wines are generally not so dark, ranging from reddish
brown to lighter reddish brown and even amber.
Happily they both share a highly aromatic nose, with suggestions
of fruit, Christmas pudding, treacle and toffee just some
of the aromas recognised. In tasting they are full-bodied
and often rich, with fruity, sweetish and occasionally subtle
roast notes picked out on the palate. Any tendency towards
an excess in sweetness is balanced by a generous amount
of hops. The finish lingers like the warmth from a dying
fire. These are not beers for slurping.
Barley wines and winter ales are for sipping,
agrees Steve Wellington of the Bass Museum, who produce
the madeira wine-like, smooth tasting No1 Barley Wine (10.5%),
which was discontinued in the 1970s but has been brought
back in the last couple of years. They are to be savoured
by the fireside. Theyre very warming, for days when
the weather is atrocious. So they should be treated with
One of the new old favourites is Gales
Prize Old Ale (9%). A complex and highly individual drink
it is corked in the bottle, all the better to ensure secondary
fermentation and let the yeast do its work. Gales
assistant brewer Moyra Williams, explains the brewing of
the ale: Theres normally a three hour boil (normal
beer usually gets 90 minutes) with the hops added at different
stages of the boil, and late hops added for aroma. It then
matures for six months in the brewery. It is bottle-conditioned
which means that the yeast is still working in the bottle.
The long boil is also a vital factor in the brewing of
No1 Barley Wine. Steve Wellington: It gets a 12-hour
boil in the copper, which evaporates 3/5 of the volume and
caramelises the wort (the malty liquid prior to the adding
of hops and the work of the yeast). We add a huge amount
of hops (Fuggles and Goldings) in comparison with ordinary
beers. Fermentation also takes longer than normal as well.
Im of the firm opinion that beers above 6% keep better
for longer periods of time. We brew it in January, and keep
it in the cask for most of the year. It brings out a wonderful
drink and its definitely one for Christmas.
The great bon viveur Auberon Waugh once wrote that beer
and food should not be served together unless you happened
to be in prison on Christmas Day. Happily, attitudes are
changing as more people start to match food with our national
drink. Albert Roux is one. He was at the Bass Museum last
September cooking a lunch which made use of beer as an ingredient
while selected ales were served with each course. And its
the rich and warming food of the Christmas season that winter
ales and barley wines especially complement. There
is definitely more interest with matching beer and food,
says Steve Wellington. No1 goes wonderfully with Christmas
pudding, fruit cake and any reasonably rich and sweet food.
Theres also the ancient art of mulling beer. In the
granary store of East Anglia one of the most successful
breweries in recent years has been Woodfordes.Their
Norfolk Nog (4.6%) is another distinctive beer to warm the
cockles of the heart in winter. Voted CAMRA Champion Old
Ale of Britain in 1992, its a full-bodied reddish
brown beer packed with aroma and flavour but not so strong
as to blow your head off.
Its also excellent for mulling as brewery director
Mike Betts explains, we have experimented with mulling
and it worked very well. First of all we put it on in a
traditional pub with log fire. We put a poker in the fire
and when it was hot put it in the glass. The beer around
the poker first of all boiled giving a vigorous white head.
The aroma is fantastic and the head is warm with the beer
beneath cool. Delicious. The brewery also occasionally
produce a well-hopped but mellow barley wine Norfolk Nips.
Whatever the confusion about where winter ales end and
barley wines begin what is beyond doubt is that they are
all beers to be treated with respect. To be savoured and
slowly sipped like fine wines and ports, preferably in front
of a roaring log fire with a piece of rich fruit cake or
Stilton to hand. Long may they warm the cockles of the beer-lovers
Other distinctive winter ales and barley wines to
look out for include: Adnams Tally Ho, Brakspears
OBJ, Exmoor Beast, Elgoods Wenceslas Winter Warmer,
Highgate Old Ale, Theakstons Old Peculiar and Wadworths
CAMRAs Good Beer Guide is an excellent accessory
in hunting out good pubs which serve well-kept winter ales
and barley wines. Tuckers Maltings (see Reader Offer), Oddbins
and the major supermarkets stock many bottled varieties.
Bass No1 Barley Wine is available in limited amounts
at the Bass Museum, Burton-on-Trent. (01283 511000).
Gales Old Prize Ale (9%):
Here the confusion about winter ales and barley wines
comes into full play. Despite being sold as Prize Old Ale,
Gales call it a barley wine! Perhaps a winter warmer is
the best compromise. Whatever the choice, its an incredibly
complex beer, a deep dark-brown colour with a powerful toffee,
raisiny and malty nose. Theres also a slightly burnt
aroma making its presence known perhaps due to roast
malt? Its rich, fruity (bananas?) and slightly sweet
on the palate with a well-balanced hoppiness at the back
of the mouth. Theres also a brief hint of coffee.
A real blockbuster and delicious tasting ale. Recommended
food includes strong cheddars, rich pudding and fruit cake.
Serve instead of port at the end of a meal. Pouring should
be done with great care to ensure that the yeast sediment
is retained in the bottle.
Robinsons Old Tom (8.5%):
First produced at the turn of the century and believed
to be named after the Mancunian brewerys cat at the
time. This is a classic winter warmer which keeps out those
cold Pennine winds. Almost black-blackcurrant in colour,
it has a stupendous nose of toffee and malt followed by
hints of caramel and fruit. A superbly balanced, mouth-filling,
fruity, vinous and warming ale which also contains hints
of the smokiness of whiskey. A drink to round the evening
off. As for food, sticky toffee pudding is one of the suggested
accompaniments. The brewery also offer a recipe for Old
Tom Ale Cake. Available in both bottle and draught.
King & Barnes Christmas Ale 1996 (8%):
Described as a barley wine, this is a fruity and hoppy ale
and the perfect accompaniment to a chilly winters
night. Dark golden brown in colour, it starts with a zesty
mix of malt, fruit and hops on the nose, followed by an
explosion of fruit, vanilla, caramel and toffee in the taste
well-balanced by a surprisingly refreshing hoppiness which
leaves the palate wanting more. The Horsham based brewery
describe it as liquid Christmas pudding but it would go
well with any sticky delight as well as the cheese board.
Best after at least a year in the bottle. The bottle conditioning
mellows the sweetness associated with this strength of beer
and allows the hoppiness to be retained. Bottle-conditioned
Harveys Christmas Ale (8.1%):
The family-run brewery in Lewes have been established since
the late 18th century and were pioneers in the current trend
for seasonal beers. Their Christmas Ale is a reddish brown
colour with a malty, fruit-cake nose. Theres also
a subtle hoppiness which stops this delicious ale from being
too sweet. Its rich, warming and malty on the palate
at first with a hint of bitterness in the fruit finish.
A very well-balanced and well-rounded dessert beer which
would accompany fruit cake and Christmas pudding. Available
in bottle only.
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