In 1968, Dorchester brewer Eldridge, Pope brewed a special ale to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Hardy, the novelist and poet who lived nearby. I’ve always had a vexed relationship with Thomas Hardy. The Trumpet Major, the novel quoted on the label of the bottle in the picture above, was one of my set texts for ‘O’ Level English Literature and I found it so tedious and infuriatingly slow that I gave up on it, preferring to read horror and crime novels instead. It’s not a strategy I would recommend for passing exams, though I must say that fifteen year-old me enjoyed it at the time. I like to think I’ve settled my differences with Thomas Hardy since then, but on the whole I still prefer his poetry to his prose. The Trumpet Major, incidentally, was first published in 1880, the year before Eldridge, Pope’s “new” Dorchester brewery opened.
Thomas Hardy’s Ale is a 12 percent ale intended to be reminiscent of the “Casterbridge ‘strong beer'” Hardy describes in The Trumpet Major. Of this beer Hardy writes:
The masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious county families it was not despised. Anybody brought up for being drunk and disorderly in the streets of its natal borough, had only to prove that he was a stranger to the place and its liquor to be honourably dismissed by the magistrates, as one overtaken in a fault that no man could guard against who entered the town unawares.
According to thomashardysale.org.uk in 1968 Thomas Hardy’s Ale was matured in sherry casks for nine months and sold in three bottle sizes: pint and half pint, sealed with a cork, and ‘nip’ which was sealed with foil over a crown cap. Taking into account the cost of brewing and maturing the beer itself, numbered labels, a ribbon round the neck of the bottle, and a medallion showing a silhouette of Thomas Hardy, this beer must have been a marginal proposition from a business point of view, so marketing was important. Thomas Hardy’s Ale was sold as Britain’s strongest ale and because of its rarity, and the advice that it would last for 25 years, it acquired a mythology all of its own. The 1990-vintage bottle pictured above states on the label that it is “one of the few British beers bottled with its natural yeast.”. It was being sold to the few remaining beer drinkers who cared. Eldridge, Pope brewed it again in 1974 and 1975 and then every year from 1977 until 1999.
From the start, bottles of Thomas Hardy’s Ale carried a quotation from chapter 16 of The Trumpet Major: “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.” This bottle belonged to my late father in law, Raymond Chapman, who wrote a book about Hardy, and it lay undisturbed in the cellar of his house for almost 25 years. Opening it in 2015, any headiness it once had was gone, but it poured a syrupy dark brown, releasing aromas of dark chocolate and caramelised sugar. It was delicious: slow moving and relaxed, with the soft bitter sweetness of molasses. It had been spending its time profitably, lying there in the dark, and it was a real pleasure to share it with The Ormskirk Baron. The lines that precede the quotation on the bottle put it better than I can:
This renowned drink—now almost as much a thing of the past as Falstaff’s favourite beverage—was not only well calculated to win the hearts of soldiers blown dry and dusty by residence in tents on a hill-top, but of any wayfarer whatever in that land.
Like Sack and Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Eldridge, Pope are also a thing of the past. The brewery went out of business after a failed attempt to become a pub retail chain. Devon brewer O’Hanlon’s carried on with brewing Thomas Hardy’s Ale between 2003-2009, before giving up because of the cost. The once impressive nineteenth-century Eldridge, Pope brewery is now a retail and apartment complex known as Brewery Square.