Historic ales cracked open at Jubilee tasting
On Friday 1st of June Old School Wines held their first ever ale tasting session – and it was a Diamond Jubilee celebration like no other, featuring ales over 100 years’ old! Here’s a great report from Ean Faragher, with pictures by Emily Ensor
Initially a century old ale doesn’t sound so appealing and before any wit suggests, it wasn’t just the last barrel from The Bonnie Gem. However when you learn that the Bass brewing company have been brewing ale for the sole purpose of being drunk many years later it may pique your interest.
The first commemorative ale was brewed in 1868 by the then Bass, Ratcliff and Gretton brewery to celebrate the birth of a Ratcliff child. After this the next ale was the 1902 Kings Ale – an ale we were fortunate enough to sample. Bass went on to release several more commemorative ales for various royal occasions or visits, with several of these on offer to taste.
The tasting took place at Old School Wines, housed in the old school house of Tittensor. It’s a beautiful building with the stunning bell tower being the standout architectural feature. A building with a varied history – from school children to wine with just a few steps in between (notably as a coach depot). I suggest, sincerely, that you take a visit – Andrew, Ben and Clare are all clearly very knowledgeable about wine and I’m certain given a few bits of information could find you a new favourite tipple.
On arrival we were met with a warm welcome and were provided with a small leaflet with further information on the ales we would be sampling, their history and a brief history of the Bass and Co brewery. Once everyone had arrived Andrew decanted the ales and provided a brief talk, warning us to abandon all thoughts we had about ale as these tasted like nothing we’d ever tasted before.
We started with the 1977 Jubilee Strong Ale, brewed to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver jubilee. The smell of this ale was akin to an aged sherry, obviously a strong alcohol note but a scent of sweetness too. On tasting there was a strong treacle/molasses flavour (matching its colour, a thick black treacly beer) with a definite bitter aftertaste, with the hops still standing up to the strong alcohol content.
Later on Andrew opened another bottle of this and when poured it kept a full head and still had some effervescence – second time round it was smoother and perhaps my favourite of the night.
Next up was the Princess Ale, a brew started by Princess Anne in 1978 during a visit to the Burton brewery. The nose for this one was most definitely Marmite, presumably the yeast content in the bottle was increased to promote the longevity of the ale so it’s not surprising that it smells of dead yeast.
The taste was difficult to describe, it was an unusual mixture of yeast and strong alcohol, imagine pouring a packet of ready yeast into a bottle of vodka and you’d be close. I’m sure you can tell, I wasn’t a fan of this one.
Following the Princess was the 1982 Princes Ale, brewed for Prince William’s birth. This smelled musty, with a vague smell of hops and yeast – a little bit like a pub on a Sunday morning or a brewery that
hasn’t been cleaned down properly. The taste was smooth with a huge alcoholic aftertaste, not bad but not brilliant either. It turned out that the bottle was slightly corked, still drinkable but many of the flavours were missing due to the oxygen getting into the bottle. Another bottle was opened and the smell was similar but the taste was smooth, and very drinkable with a slight hoppiness.
Finally there were two beers that were the same but different.
The 1902 Kings Ale was either rebottled or rebrewed to the same recipe in 1977 (the debate apparently rages strong on both sides) and both were on offer, an original and the 1977 version.
The 1977 version is distinguished by an additional label on the bottom of the bottle. First up is the ’77 ale, made/rebottled to commemorate the bicentenary of Bass. It smells strong but still like an ale. It tastes like a good port, incredibly fruity with a very thick texture: very drinkable but quite clearly a very strong beer.
And finally the oldest ale on offer, the 1902 Kings Ale. From the very first smell you know it’s old. It’s that sort of smell you get when walking into an ancient house or medieval castle – musty, oaky and historic. On tasting you realise what a phenomenal experience this is, I’m drinking an ale that has been on this world 4 times longer than me. It’s a smoky, fruity taste, with a hint of tobacco and a bitter aftertaste. It’s a taste that feels like it would be impossible to recreate, which ultimately it is. I believe, we’re you to open another bottle you would find it tasted different. Perhaps the core tastes would be present but the passage of time will affect each bottle differently, which is a wonderful thing.
I’d like to thank all at Old School Wines for the experience. Many people would think to sample a piece of history like this would cost a lot but for less than the cost of a cinema visit I was able to enjoy five ales that were all made before I was born. Andrew, Clare and Ben are a very friendly bunch who obviously enjoy what they do and offer fantastic customer service.
When asked about a pretty unique spirit they offered to help me source it if they could – I even left with a box of cider that Ben was convinced I’d love, and he was absolutely right. I’d never visited before, perhaps I was slightly put off by other, less friendly (shall I say snobby?) wine merchants but I will certainly be visiting again – who knows, they may turn me into a wine drinker yet?!