Having had the good conscience to eschew the grapes of Beaujolais last month, I am now rewarding myself with the barley of north Norfolk. To be precise, I am drinking a bottle of Lees' Harvest Ale 1995, one of very few British beers to be produced annually from the new season's barley and hops crop. The barley is a variety called Maris Otter, grown by a handful of specialist farmers along a narrow strip of land about five miles inland from Wells-next-the-Sea. The flinty soil there makes for a robust, nutty grain and the sea frets mellow it to a delicious flavour.
I have been patient in awaiting these pleasures. The winter-sown Maris Otter enjoyed the good weather this summer, and was ready for harvesting in late July, but the knowledgeable farmers resisted the urge to hurry. "When it looks ready, wait another week for it to mature," counsels Ian Hall, who turns the barley into malt in Castleford, Yorkshire.
He himself waits a further eight weeks to let the harvested barley enjoy the biological changes known as "dormancy" before it is ready for the malting processes of germination and kilning.
Mr Hall is very keen on Maris Otter, though he is also proud of the barleys he can find in the Wolds or the Vale of York. These crops have fed the family-owned maltings, Thomas Fawcett and Sons, since 1809. The maltings has in turn made Castleford almost as famous among brewers as it is to Rugby League.
The new season's malt was transported across the Pennines at the end of October to John Willie Lees' brewery, just beyond two more Rugby League towns, Rochdale and Oldham. John Willie Lees was an Oldham mill owner, and pioneer of steam power, who installed the brewery in a row of 17th- century cottages in 1828. They still stand, as offices, though the company has used a "new" brewhouse, across a cobbled yard, since 1876.
Somehow, the neighbourhoods of the old cotton kingdom manage to drink almost 80,000 barrels of Lees mild, bitter, old ale and lager every year, along with the products of neighbouring concerns such as Hyde's and Holt's, without the breweries' names being widely evident even in Manchester city's centre, let alone the rest of Britain. "We do have a pub in Chester, and some in North Wales," offers Lees' brewer Giles Dennis, as evidence of a wider presence.
There was a time when international brands of indifferent lager seemed set to wash away such breweries. (Happily, the tide has since slowed almost to a stop.) One night in Blackpool, after a "heavy" dinner with the local Brewers' Guild, the management of Lees decided to respond to fashionable lagers by making a vintage beer - once a year they would brew the finest strong ale they could, wholly from British materials. This would emphasise the seasonal origins of beer. (In the days before refrigeration, the brewing season began at Michaelmas and ended on St George's Day.)
"We came to the decision in an alcoholic frenzy," jokes managing director Richard Lees-Jones. "No, it was on sober reflection," counters Dennis. Either way, the result, Lees' vintage-dated Harvest Ale, is an after-dinner beer. It is aromatised with the classic hop variety Goldings, from east Kent, and fermented with John Willie Lees' distinctive three-strain yeast. It is then matured for a month before being bottled, and emerges with 11.5 per cent alcohol. The 1995 label shows barley being scythed against a background of oast houses and casks. Similar emblems have appeared each year, in a slightly different arrangement. I particularly liked the fieldmouse in 1990; that was an especially good beer, too, though 1988 was my favourite.
In fact, I sampled the 1995 alongside all the previous nine vintages.
Here are my tasting notes:
1995 Attractive garnet colour. Juicy, "barley sugar" flavours. Well rounded, developing an orange-zest dryness in the finish
1994 Russet. Rather flat. Pleasantly winey
1993 Sunny colour. Fruity and sweet
1992 Pale amber. Very good bead. Fruity dryness
1991 Bright orange. Dry maltiness. Slight yeast bite
1990 Hazy. Dry, with a peppery, medicinal, hop character. Warming
1989 Orange colour. Toffeeish, creamy
1988 Amber. Very good head. Depth of fruity flavours
1987 Copper colour. Flat. Figgy. Madeira-like
1986 Tan. Spicy, sherbety, winey.
I have here highlighted the differences in flavour. There are four reasons for these variations: the barley-malt and hops are a little different each season; there have been slight variations of brewing procedure; some of the flatter samples may not have been well treated by the bottling line; age has its own effect.
The exact influence of age is open to argument. Ninety-nine out of a hundred beers will go downhill. Only the strong and complex might improve. Before this tasting, I would have said that Lees Harvest Ale might develop favourably for three to six months. Now, I think six or seven years. Beyond that, oxidation creates Madeira-like notes, which can become dominant. From day one, the herbal floweriness of the hop can recede, but it was still definitely evident in the 1990.
Lees' Harvest Ale is filtered and pasteurised. The same is true of the vintage-dated Christmas and New Year "Special Ale" (5.5 per cent), from Anchor Brewing, San Francisco. This is also made from the new season's barley, grown on the borders of California and Oregon. This spiced beer has distinct flavours of cinnamon and orange peel. Carlsberg's liquorice-tinged Christmas Beer (6.4 per cent), again vintage dated, is also filtered and pasteurised, and I am not convinced it will improve with age.
A beer is most suitable for laying down if it contains a sediment of living yeast and some residual sugar, and is not pasteurised. In those conditions, it can enjoy a slow secondary fermentation in the bottle. Among vintage-dated British beers, the prime example of this approach is Thomas Hardy's Ale, from Eldridge Pope of Dorchester. This is not a seasonal beer, though a limited number of brews are produced each year. When released, it is decidedly thick and yeasty, almost meaty and Marmite- like; after about five years, it tastes like sherry-dunked fruitcake.
The most venerable "vintage" brew I have ever tasted was a Chimay. This beer is produced year- round at the Trappist abbey of the same name, in Belgium. On a visit there, I was offered a 21-year-old example by Chimay' s famous brewer Father Theodore, now in semi-retirement. It had a taste reminiscent of Maderia-like champagne.
Harvest Ale is available by mail order at pounds 5 for two bottles, from J W Lees, Greengate Brewery, Middleton Junction, Manchester M24 2AX. The brewery has a limited stock of some early vintages. The 1992 may also be found in some Lees pubs, Booth's supermarkets, and specialist shops, such as Beer Paradise, Riverside Place, Leeds
Michael Jackson was the only writer to win two Gold Tankards in the 1995 awards of The North American Guild of Beer Writers. He was named Columnist of the Year and won a second tankard for his 'Beer Hunter' CD- Rom (Discovery Channel). He also won a Pewter Tankard in the British Guild of Beer Writers' Awards. In Finland, Jackson won the 1995 Sahti Haarikka award for his services to community brewing. The award was for articles in 'The Independent' and 'What's Brewing'
Anthony Rose returns next week
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