The story of Thomas Hardy's Ale
The label reads "In 'The Trumpet Major' Hardy wrote of Dorchester strong beer 'It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste, but, finally, rather heady".
The refurbishment of the Trumpet Major pub in Dorchester was the catalyst for the fledgling Thomas Hardy's Ale. 1968 was the 40th anniversary of the authors' death and what better way to commemorate it than by attempting to bring fiction to life and creating the brew that Hardy imagined.
This was to be no ordinary ale. Matured in oak sherry casks for nine months and corked in decorative pint and half pint bottles. The strength was a whopping 12% and it was bottle conditioned. Thus the legend began and bottles were laid down with the expectation of improvement as the beer matured.
Most of the production did not consist of the larger corked bottles with their beautiful velvet neck ribbons but small nip size crown corked bottles with a black and gold neck medallion. This depicted a silhouette of Thomas Hardy on one side and the brewery address on the reverse. This was to become a distinctive feature of Hardy's Ale bottles, but it was only the 1968 edition that displayed the date on the medallions.
Hardy's Ale was not produced again until 1974 but with the exception of 1976 appeared annually after that until the final vintage of 1999. Word of mouth spread the tale amongst connoisseurs about this wonderful strong ale, the one that extolled us not to drink it for 5 or 10 years and proclaimed that it would keep for 25 years!
Although the reputation of Thomas Hardy's Ale grew the instruction to lay it down before drinking may have unwittingly helped to contribute to its downfall. People bought a few bottles as souvenirs to be put away for some special occasion in the future, but others wanted something more instantly accessible. The "don't drink yet" instruction was quietly dropped during the 1980's. Conversely the need to cellar the beer led to many bottles surviving as their owners forgot about them or when the special occasion did arrive, could not bear to part with their prized possession.
It was not just in Britain that the reputation of Hardy's Ale grew. 25ml bottles were introduced for the European market, and later the 33ml size for the United States. In fact, Phoenix Importers who now commission the new Thomas Hardys' Ale from O'Hanlons, imported some of the 1st vintage in 1968.
So how did we come to lose this exquisite ale? Sales were never as high as many thought. Eldridge Pope were certainly partly to blame. "Brews from 1990 followed tighter specifications to provide more consistent, cleaner and well balanced style" said head brewer Roger Wharton in 1997. Doesn't sound like an improvement to me. The labels lost their prefix letter and numbers as a cost cutting measure. The much loved medallions went the same way. The demise of the nip size lost some devotees, although it was the sales of the 33cl bottles to the U.S. that kept the beer going in the later days. Maybe we just took it for granted.