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Reviving Obscure Georgian Ales

Reviving Obscure Georgian Ales

A Taste of Antiquity: Uncovering the Secrets of Georgian Brewing

Before me sits an aged Barley Wine – stately, noble, and time-worn. Russet in the glass, or maybe closer to the color of antique mahogany, the liquid itself is clear and mindful. As I bring it to my lips, I think of the long-ago summer harvest of the barley that provided its backbone, alongside the voices of the hop-pickers echoing across the three decades since it was made. It isn’t unreasonable to consider this beer a time capsule.

When the 1996 Harvest Ale from JW Lees was brewed, the dominant styles in UK independent beer were Bitter and Golden Ale, though the green shoots of the IPA revival were starting to sprout. Now, some 25 years later, on a drizzly December morning in the boardroom at the Manchester brewery, we are tasting history and using all our senses to discover what time can do to a beer.

The Persistence of Harvest Ale

There are seven of us around the table, overlooked by paintings of past members of the Lees family which adorn the wooden panels. Photographer Sean McEmerson and I are joined by head brewer Michael Lees-Jones and his cousin William Lees-Jones, who is the brewery’s managing director, master brewer Tom Evans, former brewery manager Paul Wood who began in 1972 and currently brews specials on JW Lees’ pilot kit, and marketing manager Jonathan Lloyd. The seven Harvest Ale vintages we will taste are the aforementioned 1996, plus the 2000, 2009, 2014, 2020, and two iterations of the 2021 version – one of which was fermented with yeast cultured from the very first Harvest Ale of 1986.

“We found a bottle of it, opened it, and saw that there was some sediment, and we then wondered if there was any yeast,” says Michael Lees-Jones. “So we added it to a bit of wort and something happened, and we added a bit more wort and thought, ‘something is definitely happening,’ and so we basically cultured our yeast from the 1986 bottle.”

The 1996 is the first vintage that we try. Its head is a perfect collar of tan-flecked foam, while its rich nose features the fragrant nuttiness of almonds or maybe marzipan, the umami of Marmite, the light syrupy fruitiness of sherry or even port, the creaminess of chocolate, the sweetness of dried raisins, and the weight of alcohol. There is a warmth on the palate with each sip, bringing forth an impression of Christmas cake before it finishes dry. It is a remarkable and remarkably complex beer, and it is older than my 20-something son.

What soon becomes apparent as our tasting progresses is that each Harvest Ale vintage has its own character, personality, and unique sense of purpose, even though little has changed with regard to the beer’s process and ingredients. “Every version is brewed with Pale Ale malt, Goldings hops, and JW Lees’ house yeast,” says Michael Lees-Jones. “It is brewed by the same process every year, but the variation we get for each vintage is astounding – some are light, others dark.”

A Timeless Ale in a Changing Landscape

Ever since I first encountered Harvest Ale about 17 years ago, during a beer dinner at the White Horse pub in West London, it has fascinated me. It is an aristocratic beer that is elegant and persuasive, and the fact that it is made using the new season’s malt and hops helps it stand apart. This, coupled with its potential for aging, marks it out as one of the most exceptional British Barley Wines available.

JW Lees is a traditional family brewery best known for its cask beers, and yet it has continued to make this outlier of a beer. Harvest Ale’s longevity has persisted despite changing tastes, an alcoholic strength that would put off most session drinkers who visit the brewery’s 140-pub estate, and the UK’s high duties on stronger beers.

“The government got it into their mind that anything over 7.5% is dangerous, so from a duty perspective, it makes it really expensive,” says William Lees-Jones.

These reasons lead me to ponder whether Harvest Ale is a relic, a survivor, or a signpost for modern breweries. Is it dusty and weathered, an anachronism that has managed to hang on in the modern day? Or has it become a signifier for today’s brewers who are seeking connection with and direction from this piece of living heritage?

If my conversations with several younger brewers are anything to go by, there is certainly a warm affection for both Harvest Ale specifically and JW Lees generally. As Thornbridge’s production manager, Dominic Driscoll, recalls, the first Barley Wine he ever made – at the Manchester-based Marble Brewery in 2009 – was directly influenced by Harvest Ale.

“Harvest Vintage Ale has always been a special beer for me,” he says. “It’s an oxblood-red Chesterfield, glowing fireplace sort of drink that should be saved for special occasions, like an old whisky or Armagnac. Back in 2009, a Barley Wine felt like the pinnacle of a brewery’s portfolio, especially in Manchester where we also had Robinsons’ Old Tom brewed locally. I find the fact that JW Lees has this unique Strong Ale that honors the first of the seasons’ barley malt and hops romantic and inspiring.”

Dann Paquette, co-founder of the Brewery of Saint Mars of the Desert in Sheffield and formerly of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, is an American expat making beer in the UK. Despite coming of age overseas, he too recalls the early impression that Harvest Ale left.

“As a young brewer in America, beers like Young’s Old Nick, Lees’ Harvest Ale, Thomas Hardy’s Ale were ones that captured my imagination and, along with the Michael Jackson Beer Hunter series, painted a picture of English Ale and brewing that I suppose is part fantasy,” he says. “When I moved here originally in 2006, I was surprised that these beers, so prominent and loved at home, seemed much less well-known and respected. I think JW Lees’ Harvest Ale carries the flag for British brewing around the world, especially in an era where English brewing is becoming so American-craft-beer-influenced. As a proper British original, it’s super important that beers like the Harvest Ale don’t vanish.”

A Survivor’s Tale

Vanish is what many of Harvest Ale’s peers did. In the course of researching this story, I came across an article by beer writer Tim Webb in the 1987 edition of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)’s Good Beer Guide about how bottled Strong Ales and Barley Wines, in particular, were being brewed less and less in the British Isles. Many of the beers mentioned were later laid to rest during the 1990s or even earlier. This makes it all the more remarkable that Harvest Ale has managed to hang on during decades of transformation, including the rise of craft beer and other paradigm-altering changes in British beer.

Even more striking is the fact that the beer was a happy accident, developed on a whim after a discussion during a black-tie dinner in 1986. “My dad, who was brewery chairman, and the then-head brewer, Giles Dennis, were at the annual Institute of Brewers dinner,” says William Lees-Jones. “If we look back at the UK beer market then, Heineken was 3.4% ABV, and people were drinking other weak beers, but the continental breweries who were marketing beers in the UK were brewing some very strong, premium, expensive beers. With this in mind, the two of them talked at the dinner about doing something that was going to be the best of British beer and would only be brewed once a year.”

Wood was also at the same dinner and recalls that Harvest Ale started off as “a bit of fun.” He says, “We knew it could be strong, and we used to say we would ‘boil the bollocks off it,’ meaning that it was a three-hour boil, which would serve to deepen its color and create more caramelization. We initially collected it at the original gravity, so we never measured the strength. It has always been the same grist, same yeast every time, and as Michael said, every beer can be different.”

It would take some time before JW Lees realized what a special beer it had on its hands. “The problem was that while Dad and Giles were brilliant at brewing this beer, they weren’t very good at selling it,” admits Lees-Jones. Each year, the majority of the Harvest Ale bottles would go into various warehouses and just sit there quietly, slumbering.

A Transatlantic Journey

Matters changed in 2000 when Matthias Neidhart of beverage importers B United International Inc. emailed the brewery. He was based in New York and had read a beer book featuring 20 beers that the writer had given five stars, declaring them the best beers in the world. One of those beers was Harvest Ale, and Neidhart thought that he could market it, along with the 19 other selections, on the East Coast.

“So I contacted him, and he wanted to buy some beer off us and asked for a five-year exclusive deal for the whole seaboard,” says Lees-Jones. “We had a board meeting, and my father was all, ‘It’s outrageous, how dare he,’ but then I asked him how many beers had we sold in the US in the last 50 years? ‘None’ was the answer, so we gave him the five years.”

This transatlantic journey has solidified Harvest Ale’s reputation, to the point where, in the US, JW Lees is known “pretty much exclusively as the brewer of Barley Wine,” says Saint Mars of the Desert’s Paquette. “If you look at American rating websites, you see the Harvest Ale rated into the thousands, and their pub Ales hardly listed. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that this beer – simply referred to as JW Lees – is one of the most famous British beers in the States.”

A Rare Treat

Even though Harvest Ale is mainly found in bottle, some one-off releases are aged in various barrels that once held whisky, port, or sherry. Meanwhile, the cask-conditioned version is an exceptionally rare beast, but thanks to Alexander’s encouragement, local CAMRA beer festivals have occasionally been able to secure one.

Things changed in early 2020 when JW Lees was invited to share its cask Harvest Ale with a larger and decidedly younger audience – attendees of Cloudwater Brew Co.’s Friends & Family Beer festival. “You could argue that this was the definitive moment when the brewery was introduced to a new generation of beer lovers, one who might have otherwise dismissed it as fusty and old-fashioned,” says Cloudwater’s founder, Paul Jones, whose brewery has collaborated on several beers with JW Lees since 2016.

“We were excited to invite JW Lees – they were pouring, and it was delightful for them to be there, and they were thrilled to be invited into this geeky event. When we brought them into this space, they didn’t step into it with a seasonal or their Manchester Lager, but they brought a cask of Harvest, and I remember Jeff Bagby of Bagby Beer Company tasting glasses of it with Paul Wood. His enthusiasm was utterly infectious, so that everyone wanted to be in that bubble.”

As he talks of that moment, you can hear the enthusiasm in Jones’ voice, as well as perhaps a sense of hometown pride. “Here he was, enjoying the spoils of some of the best beer in the UK. It is some of the finest beer you can get, and it happens to be fundamentally different year after year, even though the brewery is capable of brewing the same every year. You drink a vertical of that beer, you get everything, including sherry liqueur and dark fruits.”

While Bagby had tasted Harvest Ale in the past, this was the first time he had tried it on cask. “The depth of this version knew no bounds,” he recalls. “Heavy beers like this just don’t exist anymore. Not like this. I took photos as it really hit me how striking and important this beer was. I recall being told that it isn’t served like this anymore, and that this was a special treat. True or not, it certainly was a treat for me. Rich and round without being cloying. Just enough bitterness to make me happy, and I know I smiled as I drank it. It felt like drinking history.”

A Vertical Tasting of Time

Back in the boardroom, our vertical tasting continues. After the 1996, we move on to the 2000 vintage. This is also clear in the glass and reddish mahogany in color. There is a flurry of rich, fruity notes on the nose, alongside another suggestion of Marmite, while Evans picks up a hint of cayenne on the palate.

On the nose of the 2009, I note light caramel, dried fruit, and a hint of toffee, while the palate is nutty, bitter, and dry, with some alcohol fierceness present. 2014 is light amber and gleaming, with hints of demerara sugar on the nose, some sherry notes on the palate, and a definitive sweetness and a dry and bitter finish.

According to Alexander and beer writer Roger Protz, two years ago, the vintage tasted like brown sugar and sherry, as well as a suggestion of Dundee cake, a traditional Scottish fruit cake. “This is the beauty of tasting these vintages,” I muse. “They remind me of one of my favorite paintings, J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, which is now nearly 200 years old and seems to have become more ghostly and poignant with age.”

The most enjoyable thing about making this beer for me is being able to try it at every stage possible,” says Evans, who joined the brewery from the Manchester-based Alphabet Brewing Company in 2018. “The first bottling is always great to see how it comes out and trying to guess how it will develop. I’ve bought a case every year I’ve worked on it and like to drink one of each on New Year’s Eve. It’s relatively easy to do after three or four years. Ask me how hard it’ll be in 10 years’ time and beyond, though. They say that 10 years is when they hit a peak, and from the tastings that I’ve done, it does seem to follow some form.”

There is a general agreement that the 2020 is tasting somewhat green, with the orangey character of the Goldings hops showing through. The color is light amber, and the orange notes on the nose are joined by a suggestion of caramel and marzipan. Evans picks up orange and pear on the palate, as well as middle notes of almond, and everyone agrees that the finish is dry and bitter.

Finally, we come to the two variations from 2021. The one made with regular yeast has a sweetness, fruitiness, and finishes dry and light, while the one featuring the yeast from the first-ever bottling has orange and marzipan notes, a Champagne-like spritziness, and a dry and warming finish. We all agree that these two need time to rest and mature and mellow. I envy future drinkers who will be able to track how they continue to diverge and evolve.

A Timeless Treasure

When I ask Cloudwater’s Jones what he thinks about the beer, he’s almost poetic. “One of the things I feel romantic about with Barley Wine is its simplicity – that beautiful ratio between grain and yeast expression and just the right amount of hopping to create good drinkability. That is something I find is a real heady expression, and that marriage of components and flavor is essentially a bit like the same marriage you find in a Helles.”

The joy and accomplishment of Harvest Ale is that what started as a bit of fun has become a standard, a reference point that speaks of Britain’s brewing past while persisting into its future. It is a relic, survivor, and a signpost, and fundamentally a beer for sipping and talking about, not just gulping down and talking over.

“There is always a lot of pleasure listening to everyone’s descriptions and tasting notes – it can really challenge the imagination,” says Michael Lees-Jones. “It is also amazing to taste how it pairs with foods like blue cheese or Christmas pudding. It is something quite special.”

Lees-Jones is correct – there is a real uniqueness about the beer that encourages contemplation as well as passion. I discover the latter when I ask Jones about Harvest Ale’s place in the beer world as a Barley Wine, as well as JW Lees’ wider influence.

“Barley Wine is a style that hasn’t been fucked around with, and that is why we love JW Lees brewing it,” he says. “I think that the history of the current Manchester beer scene is rich because of the help and success of local family breweries like JW Lees. Without them, we wouldn’t have had Marble, West Coast Brewery, and many others in the 1990s and onwards. The microbrewing scene that created the platform for craft beer stood on the platform of the family brewers.”

As I step out of the boardroom,

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