Way back in the Distant When, Thomas Hardy's Ale, brewed by Eldridge Pope of Dorchester, was one of the most famous bottled beers in the world. A Barley Wine, generally assumed to be around 12% ABV though with considerable flexibility, it came in little individually numbered bottles - tightly sealed as if to prevent inadvertent broachment.
It was a beer you'd hear folks talking about, but never see anybody drinking. People would buy cases and lay it down for years, sometimes decades. That was the point.
And so, the day after my 18th, my Father and I enacted a longstanding plan to finally open a couple of bottles from his collection. This was over 20 years ago, but if memory serves, we sampled one bottle from the year of my birth, 1977, plus one slightly younger vintage.
|The Naughties Recreation|
More than the beer though, there was an entire mythology around Thomas Hardy's Ale. You needed to lay it down for years to fully appreciate it and it frequently appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the strongest beer in the world. Eldridge Pope clearly held a unique position with this 'brand', possibly a far too vulgar term in this case, in their portfolio.
It wasn't the only trick up their sleeve either. Back in the 90s, their Hardy Country Bitter was the rarest of things - a Bottle Conditioned Ale at a session strength. At only about 4%, it really wasn't the most exciting beer ever, but the character and mouthfeel was as close to cask as anything else I've ever had from a bottle.
Even though there are far more BCAs around now, they don't really seem to be striving to emulate the look and feel of cask beer any more.
Occasionally one would hear an anecdote about somebody thinking they'd picked up a bargain, only to find out that they had mistakenly acquired a case of Hardy Country Bitter instead of Thomas Hardy's Ale. (Basically the opposite of the tale of the chap who somehow confused Fuller's London Pride with the far stronger Golden Pride and ended up falling down a well/being abducted by zombie alien sharks/pissing his pants on the corner of Church Lane.)
Before I was able to get away with drinking in pubs, I'd sometimes drink canned Royal Oak. It always seemed far richer and fruitier than the cans the other teenagers were drinking - which, given that this was typically skol or fosters, wasn't difficult.
Cask Royal Oak was the real deal though. Around 1994-95 it would be one of those beers I'd always look out for; something a bit special. Then again, we thought the same of Abbot Ale and Directors back then, so maybe I was just young and naive and knew no better. Plus, I liked the name and the colour scheme, and the fact that it was a full 5% at a time when most beers in pubs were considerably weaker.
So, that was Eldridge Pope. Like many of our once-great family brewers, they went out with barely a whimper. Firstly, the brewery was sold to property developers in 2003, with the beers contract-brewed elsewhere to supply the estate of 150-odd pubs. I don't know if it was related, but in the years prior to the closure, the beers had become notably harder to find in London.
|I used to love this stuff|
Thomas Hardy's Ale lingered on for a while after Eldridge Pope bit the dust and was brewed at O'Hanlon's for five years. They even put some of it into cask towards the end of the run - I was distinctly unimpressed with the alcoholic bite and lack of roundedness. It's not necessarily that they weren't good at brewing it, just that it's a beer that clearly benefits from extensive aging.
In recent years the brand has been revived, brewed at Meantime. Obviously we'll have to wait a few years to know if it's any good or not.
Draught beers using the old Eldridge Pope names can still be found occasionally around Dorset and East Devon. I had a pint of O'Hanlon's-brewed Royal Oak in Exeter in 2009, about which I can remember nothing.
Yeah, we all sport rose-tinted specs, and the Papal ales of the early 90s probably weren't all that compared to some of the stuff we can routinely enjoy today, but the way in which we let breweries like this - breweries that were considered legendary in living memory - disappear is nothing short of scandalous.
Eldridge Pope 1881-2003