Visit The Pub Curmudgeon site

Writing about High Strength Beer Duty, I mentioned that Gold Label barley wine would probably be the biggest selling British-brewed ale to be affected. So I thought I would try some while I still had the chance.

This beer was originally brewed by Tennant’s of Sheffield (no relation to Tennent’s of Glasgow), who were later taken over by Whitbread. For many years it was “Whitbread Gold Label Barley Wine”, and was widely sold in pubs in nip bottles. It was advertised as being “as strong as a double whisky”, a slogan that would not be acceptable in these politically correct times. I think in those days it was a formidable 10.5% ABV. It has now, with the other remnants of the once-proud Whitbread empire, passed into the ownership of international brewing giant InBev, although there is no mention of it on their website.

It’s now 8.5% ABV, with four 330ml cans selling for £4.97 in Tesco, which is 44p per unit. Not by any means the cheapest route to oblivion. In the same store, 4x500ml cans of Carlsberg Special Brew were £6.52, which is 36p per unit.

It comes in what must be one of the most old-fashioned looking cans on the market, which gives the impression of having scarcely changed since the mid-80s. It’s described as “Gold Label. Very Strong Special Beer. The No. 1 Barley Wine”. There are no “health” or “sensible drinking” messages whatsoever. I would imagine its main customers are old grannies and codgers, as it has zero “craft beer” credibility and does not score too highly on “bangs per buck”.

This sample was lightly fridge chilled and poured into an oversize 330ml Belgian beer glass.

There’s little aroma apart from a faint whiff of alcohol. The beer is a dark brown colour, similar to the darker bitters, but without any hint of redness. It forms a shallow but persistent head with few bubbles visible in the body, although there’s a distinct carbonic tinge once you sip it.

The beer itself has an obvious alcohol warmth, but is surprisingly dry, with a lingering aftertaste. It also has quite a full malt body – it’s not one of those thin beers that have alcohol but little else. Overall, it’s fairly subtle and restrained in character, but you can imagine it being very soothing on a cold winter’s night. A blind tasting alongside Robinson’s Old Tom would be very interesting.

I can’t, honestly, tell whether this is actually adjunct-ridden muck or some kind of remarkable authentic survivor from a past age of brewing, although I suspect it still retains a hint of the latter. If it was in some fancy craft beer bottle selling for £1.89, would it be looked upon differently? The packaging surely has a significant influence on one’s perceptions of a beer. Maybe InBev have missed a trick by not “doing a White Shield” with it, as an 8.5% barley wine is now a great rarity on the British bottled beer scene.

I’d be amazed if, come 1 October, this isn’t reduced to 7.5% ABV and loses some of its remaining distinctiveness.

Also see this post from a couple of years ago. Surprisingly, it’s about the same price now as it was then. Plus this review on Hywel’s Big Log, which although three years old shows the current can design.