Beer in Review: Hardly Thomas Barleywine from Firehouse Brewery & Grill

Had the opportunity to visit Firehouse Brewery & Grill recently to try their latest seasonal. The newest brew is called Hardly Thomas and it’s an example of an English-style barleywine.

The name Hardly Thomas is a clever nod to an infamous English-style barleywine named Thomas Hardy’s Ale. The highly regarded Thomas Hardy’s Ale was originally brewed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy’s death. Unfortunately for all of us, Thomas Hardy’s Ale has been discontinued. Any bottles that become available have probably been sourced from a personal stash.

With the exception of the bittering hops, Firehouse brewmaster Steve Donohue used nearly 100% English ingredients. The grain bill was a mixture of Maris Otter and Golden Promise while the hops used were a combination of East Kent Goldings and 1st Gold hop varietals.

Hardly Thomas, 10% ABV

The barleywine is a deep brown in color with caramel highlights and a tan colored head. The aroma is malty and comprised of slight toast, caramel and fruit notes. As the beer warms, its alcohol becomes more apparent but it’s never boozy. The flavor is malty up front, a combination of caramel, deep toasted barley flavors, and fruit character. Hop bitterness is medium/medium-high and while lasting on the palate, isn’t harsh. The beer is medium/medium-full in body with high carbonation and a dry finish.

Steve Donohue's "Hardly Thomas" barleywine.

Steve Donohue's "Hardly Thomas" barleywine.

I, like several other people on the Twitter, think this beer is fantastic. While malty, the ale is not a malt bomb of sweetness, rather, it’s more balanced. It’s also well attenuated, which makes for a dry finish and easier drinking beer. The other thing I like about this beer is that in spite of its 10% ABV, it is not boozy at all.

But… It’s So Dark

Check out the color of the wort from Hardly Thomas.

Check out the color of the wort from Hardly Thomas.

If you’ve never brewed before Maris Otter and Golden Promise malts are light colored malts. Coming out of the mashtun, the wort for this beer was gold colored. With that in mind, you’re probably wondering how a light colored wort produced such a dark colored beer. There were no additional specialty malts added to the boil, nor were any coloring agents of any kind added to the wort post mash. The dark color is a result of 2 things: heat and time.

Just as cooking simple syrup for an extended amount of time will result in its caramelization, boiling beer for an extended amount of time will have a similar effect. Because wort has proteins, the more accurate description of this darkening process is called the Maillard Reaction, named after French chemist and physician Louis Camille Maillard. The Maillard Reaction is responsible for awesome things such as the flavors and color of roasted meats, toasted breads, french fries, and dulce de leche.

A shot of the wort pre-boil, post-simmer.

A shot of the wort pre-boil, post-simmer.

So how much kettle caramelization are we talking about? In speaking with Donohue, he told me he had the wort simmer overnight for 18 hours at temperatures over 185° F. Because of the equipment he has in his brewhouse, it was simple enough to set the boil kettle to click on if the wort dropped below a certain temperature. Despite the ease of automation, Donohue still had trouble sleeping thinking of all the ways things could go wrong.

The following day, Donohue boiled the wort for 4.5 hours. By comparison, a typical boil only lasts for 1 hour. By the time everything was all said and done, Hardly Thomas yielded 14 BBLs of beer after starting with 23 BBLs, a reduction of nearly 40%!

 So… If I Wanted to do This at Home?

I asked Donohue what kind of advice he would give a homebrewer wanting to replicate this and he jokingly replied, “Don’t”. A huge key in the success of this beer was the ability to simmer the wort for an extended amount of time without boiling it.

I have propane burners I use just for homebrewing. At the lowest setting, the flame will hold wort at a steady temperature. I thought if I could heat my wort to about 190° F and hold it, that would be fine. Donohue counters that I would risk scorching the beer because of the direct fire of the burners. It seems as if there was no way of getting around having to cycle the flame on and off to maintain temperature. I suppose if I could submerse my boil kettle in a giant sous vide machine set to the right temperature, this would be possible. But I don’t, so this may have to remain a pipe dream for now.

If any enterprising homebrewers come up with a solution to replicate this beer, I’d love to hear about it. Donohue would go one further and said he’d love to taste any homebrews that tried to replicate this process.

Last Call

Hardly Thomas is a solid example of an English-style barleywine brewed using traditional techniques and ingredients. Donohue could’ve easily used many of the specialty grains available on the market today to make this same beer but it the results wouldn’t have been the same. There’s just something about the flavors and character created during the Maillard Reaction that can’t be replicated. It’s good to see some of our local brewers extend themselves and try to brew interesting beers with older techniques.

I’d like to thank Arie Litman for providing the 2 shots of the Hardly Thomas wort and pre-boil wort.


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4 Responses to Beer in Review: Hardly Thomas Barleywine from Firehouse Brewery & Grill

  1. Derrick says:

    You could use a smaller stock pot with a gallon or two of wort that would fit in an oven and keep it at 190 degrees for an extended period of time. Not the standard 5 gallon homebrew batch, but as someone who has started homebrewing 1 or 2 gallons at a time, it’s giving me some ideas.

  2. Linda Wang says:

    Hi Peter, do you know if I can just go to the bar and get Hardly Thomas Barleywine at the Firehouses in Sunnyvale or EPA? I’d like to try it, and I’m trying to convince Albert to make a barleywine. He’s thinking that it may be possible to sustain a long simmer at a controlled temp by using an induction burner.

  3. Topher Silva says:

    Hey Peter, Once again you hit it out of the park. Steve makes some wonderful beers, I can’t wait to try this and many others at the brewery.

  4. The Rabid Brewer says:

    Great article Peter! Kudos to Steve for another wonderful beer. Overnight boil, ha!

    One way homebrewers can try to replicate that kind of kettle carmelization is to take a quantity of first runnings, say a gallon, and boil that down on the stove. If done correctly, you’ll end up with a thick syrupy reduction that you can add back to your main boil. Done incorrectly, you’ll end up with what looks like a burnt marshmallow inextricably stuck to the pot. (Don’t ask me how I know… Ask dWiGhT! ;-)

    Another way would be to use an automated burner such as use on the MoreBeer brew sculptures. This uses a temperature controlled gas valve (similar to what’s on your furnace) to cycle the flame on and off based on feedback from a temperature controller. Although this is used to control the HLT on the MoreBeer all digital sculpture, it would work for an extended boil as well.

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