Every once in a while something comes along that really blows your mind – the birth of a child, that big win on the lottery, or, in my case, a beer of such potency, complexity and provenance that it sweeps away all preconceptions and expectations, leaving you glassy eyed and reeling from the sheer magnitude of the thing.
Granted, it’s not something that happens very often; indeed, this is the first (and probably only) time that I’ve experienced this with an alcoholic beverage, but it’s something which I suspect will stay with me for as long as my faculties are functional.
My story begins some two months ago in, as is so often the case with these things, the pub - the particular pub in question being that much favoured haunt of mine, the Swan & Rushes, Leicester.
During the course of a conversation one evening, licensee Grant Cook casually dropped in the matter of a couple of rather special nine gallon casks which had been promised to him by those nice chaps over at Oakham Ales.
Naturally my ears pricked up – Grant has a very good relationship with the Oakham team, and the promise of something new from them is always to be savoured; on this occasion however “something new” was not quite the order of the day…
With mounting excitement I listened as the story unfolded: the brewery had cleared out their cellar, and as it transpired they had a few barrels squirreled away from a couple of first brews.
The ales in question, Oblivion (5.7%) and Hawse Buckler (5.6%), had been quietly maturing in the cask for a little over one year and three years respectively – until now.
My appetite suitably whetted, I waited for the arrival of the barrels at the pub, my mind feverishly contemplating the potential of these most rare scoops until, at long last I heard the words I’d been so eagerly anticipating:
First to come on to the bar was the Oblivion, a beer which I know very well and am always partial to. What emerged from the barrel however was a very different beast to the brew which I have supped so many times; this was the sort of beer that sidles up, coshes you and nicks your wallet.
A deep, dark, reddish copper in colour with a thick, dark cream head, the beer offered up a powerful aroma of ripe fruits and malt which carried the thinly veiled threat of a serious headache if not handled carefully.
Taking a deep, fulsome pull on my pint the first thing to hit me was the incredible amount of fruit on the palate, complemented by a rich and spicy maltiness. This was followed up by a gloriously dry, bitter hop finish that seemed almost to suck the moisture from my cheeks – doubtless due to the late addition of dry hops.
I had expected a sharply alcoholic hit, but what I experienced was a warming glow akin to what I would normally associate with a sherry – a delicious sensation which brought an immediate smile to my lips. The mouthfeel meanwhile, full and thick, complemented the palate perfectly.
I could compare this with some of the stronger American IPA’s, but that wouldn’t do it justice – the year in the cask had given this brew the time to develop into something of stunning dimensions, a true prince among beers. The ABV will remain a complete unknown, although I would have said at least 7.5%
Unsurprisingly, the nine gallons went within twenty four hours and, a few days later, it was time for the real star of the show. If the Oblivion was a prince among beers then now it was time to hail the king...
On Thursday night the Hawse Buckler (again, a beer I know well in its younger guise) came on to the pump, and I duly prepared to taste the first half – common sense and the strength of the Oblivion were enough to ensure that I initially approached this with extreme caution, albeit short lived.
The first thing that struck me was the colour: never before have I seen a beer so utterly black, the kind of black you normally only find in the deepest caves or on the ocean floor. The head, thick and tight, was a rick coffee hue and clung to the glass with a viscosity unlike any I’ve seen in a beer before, forming spider web patterns on the side of the glass as I drank.
The aroma, deeply roasted with hints of liquorice, coffee and cinder toffee, seemed to physically crawl into the nostrils, a thick fug of delicious promise that sent my olfactory system into overload and drew an appreciative gasp from my lips.
The first mouthful was a revelation, a rhapsody of sultry, roasted tones with a rounded, mellow fruitfulness and delightful notes of coffee, burnt toffee and caramel, that liquorice again and hints of tanned leather. A moderately dry finish with a slightly hoppy edge completed the palate perfectly, while the thick, chewy mouthfeel was a sheer joy.
After a couple of pints on the Thursday night the Beer Monster arrived in Leicester to join me on Friday afternoon. Naturally we made our way down to the pub in order that she too might savour this dark ambrosia and, with gay abandon, we set down to some serious quaffing.
Four pints later and we were well and truly banjaxed; an attempt at bar billiards turned into a master class in how to avoid potting balls, communication became increasingly difficult and at just seven in the evening (the HB had run out by six) we decided it was time to head back home and have some food. The food never happened - we were unconscious by seven thirty.
God only knows what strength the beer had developed into; certainly we were far more hammered after those four pints than we normally are after a full day of serious ticking at a festival, but being a fan of the strong, dark brews I’d have to say somewhere near or above the 10% mark.
Returning to the Swan the following day was like entering a field hospital for the shell shocked. Around the pub wandered the casualties of the night before – the few, the band of brothers who had shared in the black ritual that had taken place.
Everyone it seems had been hit by the Hawes in much the same way, becoming incredibly drunk without realising they were doing so – the true danger of such a beer. So easy to consume and moreish, it had seduced us with its scent and gorgeous body, only to rob us of our sensibility and coordination.
The words of one victim sum it up perfectly:
“I woke up on the sofa with me trousers round me bloomin’ ankles and me bloomin’ shoes on!”
Enough said, methinks.