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Classic Beer of the Month November 2012: Lees Harvest Ale
Lees Harvest Ale, 11.5%
Beer connoisseurs generally don't have much to thank the global inundation of commodity lager for, but here's one exception.
At a brewers dinner in Blackpool in 1986, Giles Dennis found himself bemoaning with colleagues from other companies the decline of the ale market and the seemingly inexorable rise of the yellow fizz.
As head brewer at JW Lees, he decided he was in a position to do something about, or at least make a strong protest on behalf of, British ale.
On returning to his Manchester brewhouse, Giles set about creating something rather special, an ale so clearly on a different plain to bog-standard lager that it would set people talking, perhaps prompting them to realise before it was too late where our beer market was heading.
The beer he created was Harvest Ale. Giles took Maris Otter pale malt and combined its wort with East Kent Golding hops, as simple an ale recipe as you can muster – except that he pushed it to the limit, keeping the boil bubbling for close to three hours to concentrate the wort and fermenting the result to a mighty strength of 11.5% ABV.
When, after a month's conditioning at the brewery, he deemed the beer ready, he packaged it in bottles stamped with the year of production, so creating one of the UK's first vintage-dated ales of the modern era.
Brewed every autumn, in order to – as its name makes clear – take advantage of the latest barley and hop bounties, Harvest Ale has become a staple of the Lees brewing calendar.
Only 60 barrels are brewed each year. Most of it is shipped to the USA, but some lucky Lees customers can enjoy it in cask form in local pubs. The rest of us make do with the bottled version and those in the know buy several at a time, some to drink young and the rest to mature over months or years.
The beer is not bottle conditioned. It is, in fact, pasteurised as well as filtered but in aged beer of this strength any oxidation that pasteurisation may accelerate in the beer leads to a madeira wine-like quality rather than that nasty wet paper staleness you find in many weaker pasteurised beers.
I still think that Harvest Ale would be astonishing if it were bottle conditioned – the experience of tasting Fuller's Vintage Ales dating back 15 years guides me here – but it is nonetheless a supremely satisfying drink as it stands.
In its youth, the beer offers a big fruity aroma of tart red berries, oranges and sultanas. There are hop resins, too, plus creamy malt and maybe also a winey note.
The taste can be syrupy-sweet, packed with creamy malt and more orange and sultanas. I have even detected a hint of strawberry. Then the finish tends to be warm and smooth, with lingering sweet malt, some hop spiciness and yet more fruit.
As in all beers of this nature, over time the sweetness gently fades and more of a fortified wine nature – perhaps those madeira notes – can be identified.
I speak only from past experience. Harvest Ale 2012 will not be released until 1 December. Get your orders in now.