Update completed 17th January.
What have we got, then? A couple of reasonably impressive old ales from Adnam’s and Thwaites’, and one very good one from Brakspear. Just the one barley wine, from Bateman’s; it doesn’t really live up to its back story, but it’s OK. (I didn’t try the Gold Label, which is still available in supermarkets but only in four-packs.) The style du jour, surprisingly, seems to be Burton, unless I’m completely mistaken about what that style is or was: there were (I think) a couple of fine examples from Lees’ and Theakston’s, and four absolute world-beaters from Marston’s, McEwan’s, Lees’ (again) and Robinson’s.
In ascending score order (reviews in strength order over the fold):
Wychwood Bah Humbug! 5% 6/10
Adnam’s Broadside 6% 7/10
Bateman’s Vintage Ale 7.5% 7/10
Sharp’s Spiced Red 9% 7/10
Thwaites’ Crafty Dan 6% 7/10
JW Lees’ Moonraker 6.5% 8/10
Brakspear Triple 6.7% 8/10
Theakston’s Old Peculier 5.6% 8/10
Marston’s Owd Roger 7% 9/10
JW Lees’ Manchester Star 7.5% 9/10
McEwan’s Champion 7.3% 9/10
Robinson’s Old Tom 8.5% 10/10
Interesting exercise – apart from anything else I can honestly say that I’d never fully appreciated Old Tom before (which is something I never thought I’d say).
One minor gripe: the Old Tom, the Brakspear’s and the Sharp’s Spiced Red were the only ones of these beers to be bottled in 330 ml. I don’t obsess over units, but a full 500 ml of a 7+% beer is a bit of an undertaking. If it makes sense to put the Brakspear in small bottles, surely Manchester Star and Owd Roger would do better in the smaller size as well?
Wychwood Bah Humbug! 5% 6/10 If it’s cliched to be cynical at Christmas, does that mean it’s OK to be cynical when people market Christmas cynicism? Probably not. Anyway, the beer’s the thing, and – while it’s a lot nicer than the feeble 4.3% version currently available in cask – this isn’t great; not so much an old ale as an old-ale-style beer product. Think of a reasonably good strong-ish, darkish bitter; add a bit of cinnamon; and, er, that’s it. It’s fine. If I hadn’t seen it in Home Bargains (at 99p!) I probably wouldn’t have bothered.
Theakston’s Old Peculier 5.6% 8/10 At the bottom end of the strength range for this kind of beer, but this is more like it. It’s rich, it’s fruity, and most importantly it’s got that flavour – that malt flavour, as seen in Old Tom and the like. It’s not just sweetness – there’s a slight treacly bitterness to it and a definite savoury edge. It does the job, basically.
Adnam’s Broadside 6% 7/10 A big, expansive, fruity maltiness, with a definite yeasty edge to it; as you get into it the flavour seems to be carried as much by the yeast as the malt. Perhaps more of a strong bitter than an old ale, but who’s counting? Mellow and enveloping.
Thwaites’ Crafty Dan 6% 7/10 Rich and vaguely spicy – one of those ‘warming’ beers – but not very dark. It’s malty, but in a way that’s fruity (appley?) rather than treacly. In the broad ‘old ale’ area, but not a Burton.
(I picked up a Ridgeway Bad King John (6%) at Sainsbury’s, but I’m not going to rate it here – I’ve wondered just what kind of beer it is for a while now, but after this last bottle I’ve decided it’s almost certainly a porter, and definitely not an old ale or a Burton. Very nice, though.)
JW Lees’ Moonraker 6.5% 8/10 Malt all the way. An odd thinness on the first couple of mouthfuls; I know Moonraker used to be stronger, and perhaps that’s what I’m getting – the taste of watering-down. (Tasted thinner than the Old Peculier, so it’s not just a matter of the actual strength.) It builds over the length of the bottle, though. Big solid dark malty goodness.
Brakspear Triple 6.7% 8/10 An old ale, in the sense of tasting like a liqueur version of best bitter – richer, heavier, sweeter (and stronger), but still recognisably within that broad flavour profile. And a very good example of the style.
Marston’s Owd Roger 7% 9/10 Spotted, ridiculously cheap, in B&M Bargains (of all places). Malty, malty, malty. Very dark, very strong, quite sweet and very malty. A big dollop of malt extract off the spoon, only alcoholic. Very nice indeed, as long as you take it slow.
McEwan’s Champion 7.3% 9/10 This one took me by surprise. I’d had it before and remembered it being rather one-dimensional – sweet, sticky and heavy. I don’t know whether this bottle was different or I’d just tuned in my palate better, but I thought this was an excellent beer. The flavour’s in a similar area to Owd Roger, but with even more body and with a satisfying bitterness to back it up.
JW Lees’ Manchester Star 7.5% 9/10 What a very fine beer – fifty shades of malt, all of them dark. (I know ‘dark-tasting’ doesn’t really mean anything, but I think you know what I mean.) Like treacle toffee delivered in the form of a strong ale – yes, it’s that good. (Comparing the two, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was the old – full-strength – Moonraker under another name.)
Bateman’s Vintage Ale 7.5% 7/10 The 2013 edition of Bateman’s revived barley wine, available (over Christmas, at least) through Aldi. If I can get impressionistic for a moment, this is one of those flavours that rings like a bell – rounded, balanced, mellow but intense. I felt – as I did when I had the 2012 version – that I ought to be enjoying it more than I did; it ticked an awful lot of the boxes for barley wine, but without doing anything very impressive or surprising. Very like a stronger, smoother, sweeter version of Wobbly Bob, which is no bad thing to be like.
Robinson’s Old Tom 8.5% 10/10 Another one I’d had before (many times) but not appreciated fully until now. The complexity of the flavour is what sticks in the mind. It’s got all of the dark, fruity, malty body that you’d expect from this style (and strength), but coupled with fresh, citrussy fruit at the front of the mouth and a long bitter finish. This really is an absolutely superb beer.
Sharp’s Spiced Red 9% 7/10 This is a bit of an oddity. I found it rather tame for its strength, albeit with a definite alcoholic burn on the finish. (On the other hand, when I passed it around at home there was a general reaction of the whew, powerful stuff! variety.) The label told me it had been dry-hopped and spiced with coriander; the beer was bright red, and the flavour I got was essentially fruit punch, or possibly mulled wine. Quality stuff – you can tell that a lot of thought and work has gone into it – but I’m not really a fan. (Doesn’t actually taste like beer, for one thing.)