Sunday, 11 September 2011

After the gold rush

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.


  1. A pub I once went to a folk club sold only cask Tetley bitter and mild. Tetley bitter is, for me, the most boring beer imaginable, and the mild, while better, is weak in flavour and strength. I used to find that the mild with a bottle of Gold Label thrown in made a very tasty beer with a bit of strength to it as well. I was subsequently stuffed when they took off the cask mild, then the Gold label and finally the cask bitter. Fortunately the club eventually moved to better premises.

  2. I found a nip bottle of this on sale in my local offie a few months ago, not knowing anything about it. I found it drinkable but uninspiring

  3. Like RedNev, I've drunk Gold Label mixed (in my case with Boddington's Bitter) and it created a taste sensation. This was back in the late 80s, when my local served mild, bitter and spirits. Adding a Goldie was an accepted "livener" to spice up the session.

  4. I've just read the previous post you linked to and noticed I made almost exactly the same comment then!

  5. Off topic Mudgie but do you know the best place to buy Oktoberfest beer in the Stockport area?

    I've tried the gargantuan Tesco near the centre, but no luck there. Am I best heading to the Bottle Stop?

  6. Yes, the Bottle Stop is probably your best bet, although it hadn't arrived when I called in a few days ago.

    It doesn't seem to have been as common in the more mainstream outlets in recent years, although a couple of years ago Aldi had a couple of varieties at knock-down prices (£1.29 a bottle, I think).

  7. £1.89 for a crafty craft beer bottle? you'd be lucky these days...

    I keep seeing these cans in the supermarkets but I'm always put off because they're always placed next to the Special Brew.

  8. Old Tom, which is the nearest direct comparison, is £1.89 for a 330ml bottle. Duvel in Tesco is currently £1.82.

  9. This has now been reduced to 7.5% ABV, so I had to try some. Just like a weedier version of what it was before - it doesn't really drink its strength. £5.50 for 4 cans in Tesco, so a minimum price-beating 55p per unit.

    I'm still surprised that none of the classic 9% "tramp juice" strong lagers have cut their strength.

  10. I'm in a tatty but pround East End 'battle cruiser' and it's all lager. But in the fridge they have bottles of Gold Label. But its 7.5% ABV! When I first started drinking this was 10.5%! And it was called Barley Wine, not 'Strong Beer'

    Fkin nanny state...

  11. I used to go out with a girl (1969-70) and her poison was Whitbread Gold Label Barley Wine. Best I could do in our pub was Brew 10. She used to get rat arsed after 4, I certainly didn't on Brew 10!!
    Anyway Tennants brewed the bitter sold in my grandads pub in Sheffield (Rock Tavern), what a great loss that was.

  12. Just sampled a can for the first time in maybe 30 Years. A sad remnant. Only 7.5% and devoid of character. Used to have a strongly distinctive winey flavour. Now only fit for the drain. Sad times!


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