It might have started with seeing adverts for the beer as a child. There was quite a big poster campaign for Gold Label in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Odd to think now that a beer of over 10% ABV such have been pushed so aggressively and for it to sell in the volumes it did. Sadly, it all went wrong somewhere and the current version, brewed god knows where, is just 7.5% ABV. It’s a shame to see this classic beer so debased.
Over the years production methods changed, but the original way of brewing it sounds very 19th century.
“All down one side of the sample room were pins of Gold Label Barley Wine, stacked three or four high. Gold Label had been developed by Tennant's in 1951. It was a pale-coloured sparkling barley wine of great strength. It contained 10.6% alcohol by volume and as such was the strongest regularly brewed, nationally distributed beer in Britain.
In order to brew a beer of such strength, it was necessary to boil the wort (beer, prior to fermentation) for between two and three times longer than would be the case for an ordinary beer. The result of this prolonged boiling was to darken the beer considerably. Thus all other barley wines at that time were dark beers. The paleness of Gold Label was achieved by selecting ingredients, not only of the highest quality, but also choosing those which contributed least to the final colour — e.g. very pale malts, cereals and sugar. The sparkling effect was achieved by giving the beer a higher level of carbonation prior to bottling.”
"The Brewer's Tale" by Frank Priestley, 2010, page 19.
Nice to learn exactly when Gold Label was born. I knew it was the early 1950’s, but not the precise year. If you remember the analyses I published a little while back, 10.6% ABV was indeed its strength. The paleness of colour wasn’t there from the beginning. While considerably paler than their No. 1 Barley Wine, in 1954 Gold Label was about the colour of Dark Mild. By the end of the decade it was only slightly darker than Bitter.
He’s right about the recipe, too. I’ve a photo of a Gold Label brewing record from 1955. The grist is a pale malt called SPA (Special Pale Ale?), flaked maize and No. 1 invert sugar. There was indeed a very long boil of 3 hours.
But there would have been a way to brew it without a long boil: parti-gyling. Which is exactly how another pale but very strong beer was brewed, Hardy Ale. That was parti-gyled with several standard strength Bitters.
I was particularly interested to learn how Gold Label was matured:
“After the Gold Label had finished fermenting, it was racked into hogsheads and rolled 'up the tunnel'. This tunnel ran underneath Bridge Street and led to the cellars of an old building across the road from the brewery. I discovered later that these old cellars had previously been part of Duncan Gilmore's, the brewery that had once owned the Banner Cross Hotel. Gilmore's had been established in 1831 but had been taken over, and presumably closed down, by Joshua Tetley & Son of Leeds in 1954. The barley wine was held here to mature for between six months and one year. From each brew, a pin was filled and these were the casks that were stacked along one wall of the sample room. The head Brewer would regularly sample them in order to select a blend for bottling.”
"The Brewer's Tale" by Frank Priestley, 2010, pages 19 - 20.
With up to a year maturing in wood, this sounds like a classic Stock Ale. I think he means Duncan Gilmour, by the way, not Duncan Gilmore. What he doesn’t explain is how Tennant came to own cellars that had belonged to Duncan Gilmour. I guess Tetley must have sold them on.
With the talk of blending, I’m reminded to another Stock Barley Wine, Truman’s No. 1. A stock version was brewed and aged at their Burton brewery then shipped down to London where it was blended with a running version of the beer brewed in the capital. Evidently blending was a vital part of the process.
All that time in wood probably explains the high degree of attenuation – around 80% - for such a strong beer. Were there any little helpers lurking in the casks?
Next we’ll learn how mature Gold Label tasted.