J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale Matured in Sherry Casks: 11.5% abv
Background: J.W. Lee’s is an independent brewery owned by a family in Manchester. That is a pretty interesting point, because we haven’t reviewed a lot of authentic U.K. beers. They were founded in 1828, and now are on their sixth generation of family ownership. They also own a number of hotels as well. This brewery tends to show off cask-aged ales, so that seems to be the focus. These guys produce quite a few beers, but as it tends to be in the European brewers, their beers tend to be very low percentage. This one, on the other hand, is not low at all, being at 11.5%. This is a Harvest Ale. This is actually considered a barleywine, which will explain why some of the flavors of malt come out more. This particular special release is aged in sherry barrels, which by itself is not very well seen in brewing today. We were very excited to see what this did to a beer.
Nose: Starting off as a fairly neat nose, one can relate the slight fruitiness of this beer to a Belgian style, but the uniqueness takes over from here. There are some notes of subtle raison, nuttiness, and slight malt. There are sweet notes of caramel and honey which front the nose, charging forward with ornaments of molasses following behind. If I had to guess, I would say this was aged in an Oloroso sherry barrel, although the size is hard to approximate. It adds a sort of obscure wine-like character to the beer. Not only does this beer look like apple cider, but you do get some notes of apple cider as well. The nuttiness, as the beer starts to open up, resembles toasted nuts; maybe not almonds per say, but none the less a toasted smell. We even started to sense some notes of dried oak, albeit not an aggressive smell, and a unique bit of plum as well, with even a hint of dark cherry.
Arrival: The arrival, after smelling this beer for a few minutes, will knock you down. It has a sweet sherry and nuttiness at the beginning. There is some honey and maltiness in the arrival, but it is a pretty tightly packed, solid flavor. The arrival will start sweet at a slightly chilled temperature, and the sherry sweetness spills over into the body quite well. You will catch those apple cider notes in the arrival here as well. There is definitely some raison quality to this arrival. This might appear to be overly sweet when the beer reaches room temperature.
Body: To completely contradict the arrival, you will find interesting notes of peat and tobacco dominate the palate. It is not at all like the arrival, and leaves you a little astonished at what you just tasted. There are some burnt paper qualities to it. There is still some sweet raison to it, rich flavors of honey and the smoke becomes pretty powerful. This will calm down after the beer warms up though. The smoke flavors get pushed back to the finish as the beer transitions in temperature.
Finish: There is a little more peat in the finish than in the body, but you still get some prominent malt notes, along with the strong flavor of burnt tobacco. There is a strong amount of nuttiness to the beer, with the residual feelings of Oloroso and raisons. After the beer warms up to room temperature, the tobacco is right in the finish and kills the complexity.
Final Comments: This is probably one of the most complex beers we’ve ever had, with a dynamic influence from the temperature change. This has a great diversity, and the nose will tease you into thinking this would be simple and sweet, but it isn’t. This beer does model the sweetness of sherry, but takes on some prominent notes of other flavors as well, making this one of the most education beers we’ve ever had to drink.
Why you’d buy it: You don’t mind spending money, and want to try something completely different.
Why you wouldn’t: You are bitter and hateful and frown upon everything happy and good.