Beer Review: Gold Label Very Strong Special Beer

AFTER my faultering start looking at super-extra-high-strength beers and lagers with Duvel, it’s time to move to my next target. Keeping up the theme of increasingly hardcore brews, this time it’s Gold Label Very Strong Special Beer.
Gold Label can
Gold Label Barley Wine Special Beer 4 pack

I chose this as my next foray into super-strong beers and lagers because it looked to be classier than the tall and notorious cans. Yet rougher than the elegant and European Duvel. We’ll see soon enough whether I’m right with that guess or not.

These are available in four-packs from Tesco or individually from some corner shops. At between £4-5 for the four-pack, they’re not cheap. They’re also not big. One of the reasons these cans stand out, is for their size. They’re the same as ordinary soft-drink cans. Here’s a regular Dr. Pepper next to them for scale…
Gold Label Barley Wine Special Beer compared to another can

The gold colour helps these cans to stand out too. Though oddly, the Gold Label typeface is white, and on a red banner label. Maybe it should be called Red Label On A Gold Background instead?
Gold Label Barley Wine Special Beer front logo

The front is puzzling. It says “The No. 1 Barley Wine”. Yet doesn’t say anywhere on it what it is “No. 1″ for. The Number one most confusing label perhaps? And barley wine. What the hell is that? It says right above it “strong beer”. If you know the answer behind this mystery, do please leave a comment.

Rotating the can around doesn’t answer many questions. But it does give you the basic facts. The “Alcohol 8.5% vol.” for instance is very clear. It’s also fractionally less than Duvel‘s 8.6%, but less than the ASBO inducing tall cans of lager.
Gold Label Barley Wine Special Beer info side of can

Also on that ‘side’ of the label, we learn where this came from. And that place is InBev UK brewery in Luton. Not somewhere you usually associate with fine beverages. But an excellent place to catch an Easyjet flight to Spain. Back to the can, just above the labels warning you to drink responsibly, the ingredients are given as including malted barley and wheat.
Gold Label Barley Wine Special Beer barcode side of can

Over on the barcode side of the can, things are kept equally simple. The can is recyclable. It crams in 2.8 UK units of alcohol. It is best stored in a cool dry place. And…. That’s it. No lengthy articles about awards won or tales from the head brewer. Clearly this is a beer to be drank, not read. So let’s not delay that any further.

Gold Label Barley Wine Special Beer in a glass
I should have learnt this by now… 330 millilitres does not fit a half-pint glass. Not that this will bother most buyers of this drink who are likely to swig from the can before pestering passers by for change.

The colour is where the “Gold” of the name makes its appearance. It reminded me somewhat of Irn-Bru. Or a light bitter. Not much head on it though.

Normally when I do these, the smell doesn’t warrant much of a description. But in this case, it does. Gold Label has the strongest barley smell I’ve yet witnessed. And it’s not pleasant. It is almost like a warning of what is to come.

The taste is strong. There was no false advertising on this can. This is a strong beer in every sense. The pungent barley and wheat smell carries straight over to the taste. And the sour aftertaste is the sourest and strongest I’ve had so far.

As I worked through the small but powerful can, I found myself wincing and cringing. In the way you do after you’ve had a drink that’s stronger than you’re used to. The whole experience reminded me of what it was like trying beers as a youngster. When everything you try is the strongest and most revolting thing you’ve ever tried. Yet, you keep coming back to it. That is what it was like for me with Gold Label.

This is not an easily drinkable drink. I was glad the cans weren’t the normal gigantic size. But I liked being reminded of what it was like trying beers years ago.

I’m not far into this test of the strongest beers and lagers, so I don’t have much to compare it too. But right now, if I wanted something potent, I’d want either the beautifully drinkable Duvel or a strong Scottish ale. Gold Label is strong. But my hypothesis was right. It’s a rough, tough drink. Not for the faint hearted.

Rating: 2.25 but higher if I were an alcoholic or used to strong beers and lagers.

Have you tried Gold Label? What did you think?
Any recommendations of your own? Or suggestions for anything you would like me to review next?
Comments, compliments and insults in the usual place…

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45 Responses to “Beer Review: Gold Label Very Strong Special Beer”

  1. Cheryl Hulme Says:

    My Aunt, Mum & Mother in Law all drank Gold Label, not binge drinkers, just nice ladies who liked a tipple. My Mum is 86, but sadly now in a nursing home, my Aunt was 82 when she died, & my Mother in Law is 86 and still enjoys her Gold Label. They all drank it straight from the shelf, not cold, and in winter it has been known for a hot poker to be put into it. My father always said you should drink it like this when you have a cold. I am not so sure it is a cure, but after a couple you forget your symptons. I myself am partial, but like to add a little lime. However I do not drink it a lot because of the huge amount of calories it must contain.

    Regards

    Cheryl Hulme

  2. Stan Says:

    Used to be Whitbread Gold Label Barley wine and 10% alc. Barley wine was oridinally brewed extra strong so it would survive through the winter so extra barley was needed to increase the alcohol content, this was before hops were introduced to British brewing as a preservative. a traditional “ale” would have no hops, intoducing hops turns it into a “beer” or “lager”.

    • RobBeer Says:

      Barley doesn’t increase alcohol, the alcohol comes from yeast fermentation. Bass was the first beer to be called barleywine and was introduced in 1903, brewers had been using hops since the early 16th century.

      • Si Says:

        You’re sort of both right, but mostly Stan. The ratio of malted barley to liquor (water) in your mash does indeed increase the strength as this is where the sugar (which gets converted into alcohol) comes from.

  3. philip eveson Says:

    My dad drank Barley Wine, always at room temperature. Gold Label origonally came in bottles.

  4. Noel Says:

    A Christmas pudding is not a Christmas pudding without the addition of a bottle (or can) of Gold Label.
    Great blog, Hywel, but I have to take issue with many of your comments about GL. The again, I am a very seasoned drinker, not yet on the park bench though.

  5. mad manc Says:

    i once drank 25 cans of gold label for a bet and was more than a little tipsy but my mate crazy dave went on to drink 31 and didnt get out off bed at all the next day. I don’t condone binge drinking in any way but i challenge anyone to try nd drink more than 31 cans. I have a 14 year old daughter and she recenctly stepped up to the challenge but was ferociously sick after only 8.

  6. Mary's Son in Law Says:

    Gold Label was originally brewed in Sheffield by Tennants before it was taken over by Whitbread in the late 70′s/early 80′s. It’s No.1 because to Barley Wine experts it is No.1. It was originally sold in “nip” bottles. 180ml I think.
    My mother in Law Mary who is now 80 years old is drinking one at this very moment (her 2nd can of the evening). She started drinking them as a teenager, and I well remember her drinking 7-8 bottles in an evening.
    Another time I remember returning 4 bottles that she said were off. The landlord of the particular pub, who was getting pretty fed up of changing them, tasted the 4th and commented that it tasted all right to him. When asked how long he’d been drinking them, he said “I don’t”. Whereupon I informed him that the lady has been drinking at least 3 bottles every night for 40 years, and if she says its off, then it is off! He of course then told me that he didn’t have any more, and I had to get her a Carlsberg Special!
    This drink has a very loyal following, particularly among the older women of Sheffield.
    A great drink, but getting harder and harder to find. Mary hadn’t had any for 4 weeks, before arriving at my home, were we have a mere 4 cans for Christmas. Anyone out there know were we can get more??

  7. Jenn Says:

    Interesting Blog Hywel but you are definitely not a Barley Wine drinker – Like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. I was introduced to it by my late sister-in-law 30 years ago – Have always got a few cans in but don’t drink it very often these days but when I fancy a Barley – there is nothing to beat it. Heaven forbid that you drink it cold. Last night I put mine on the rad for half hour to warm up – mmmmm.
    Used to love the little bottles which only seemed to be sold in pubs – for some reason they seemed to taste even better than the cans.
    Message for Mary’s son-in-law – most of the big supermarkets sell them – usually a fiver for four cans.
    I did take exception at accusation of drinking out of a can in the street!!!! I drink mine out of an authentic Gold Label Barley Wine glass – which is how I found this Blog, as I only have one glass left and am worried about if or when I break it – as I do like the right glass for the right drink!!
    Jenn

  8. Jo Says:

    Wicked!!!
    I must be one of those aging ladies but not in Sheffield, however I do originate from South Derbyshire, now in Surrey – they haven’t got a clue down here!!
    I’ve been drinking Gold Label every night for about 35 years now as I’m in my early 50′s. I have two cans every night before bed & sometimes sneak just a little more in!! I’ve had three very healthy kids on it too, the middle one was so good & quiet my Dad used to call him Barley Bill.
    It has to be warm & I too have been known to pop mine on the radiator to warm it up.
    I make a special trip up to the Midlands every few months to stock up at the local cash & carry up there as they don’t have it down here or you have to pay silly money for it.
    About 5 years ago I got brave & confessed to my doctor how many units I consume a week, she promptly sent me off for blood tests to check my liver & gave me a right dressing down. When the results came back she was speechless as my liver was in better nick than a non drinker – so I definitely had 3 cans that night. Apparently the test gives a score in-between 0 – 200 mine was 14. All the doctor could say was I must have built up immunity to it over the years – Ha!!
    I would like to know how many calories in a can, if anyone out there knows I’d be very grateful? I too used to have an authentic glass that was sneaked out of a pub many years ago – alas it broke some where along the line. I’d love to get another too

  9. Grannie Annie Says:

    Yes, I’m a woman of a certain age and Gold Label has always been at the top of my drinking list. Being a Sheffielder, I know all about its origins and lack of availability in pubs these days. Delia puts a can in her Christmas Pudding. I used to brew my own beer and would pour Gold Label in for good measure, before bottling.

  10. john pett Says:

    i have been drinking charley farlies for about 40 years but find they harder and harder to find at a reasold price even though i live in the home the orjgonl home of it

  11. Jef Says:

    If you’re not a big fan of the taste of barley wine you could try this…
    One of my most favourite drinks as a lad was always when you get a half a pint of Guiness in a pint glass, and then top it off with a bottle of Gold Label.
    You have to pour real slow on an incline as it froths up really badly otherwise so be warned.
    Now that almost no pubs stock GL, and seen as the bottles are history, this is sadly not to be come by anymore on a night out.
    The last time I had it was in a pub on the Kingsland Rd south of Dalston. Upon ordering the mix, the wise and prophetic Jamaican landlady shook her head and commented that I’d likely give myself brain-damage…

  12. Bakewell Bez Says:

    I know of one pub locally (in Matlock Green, Derbyshire) which still regularly stocks the bottles, but every-so-often I do enquire at other pubs. It’s a real pity that it is becoming so rare, and in my opinion the bottled is superior to canned (as with most drinks). My nan also used it in Christmas puds, and I’ll always follow her recipe as the puds were superb. I am a beer drinker, and a lover of real ales, so I much prefer my pints not to be chilled, but I did get fed up of the frothiness (burping froth ain’t fun!) so a little trick I use is to pop a couple of ice cubes into the glass before pouring. As long as you don’t over-do it with the ice you won’t be cooling it down too much, and it won’t have a massive head. Oh, and I also prefer to have a large glass and top it up, not have one bottle at a time. There are a couple of other barley wines I’ve tried (can’t recall their names now as too long ago and the last pub has since closed some years past), but Gold Label is my favourite. I think there used to be a lager called Gold Label too (maybe still is – but I only drink specific super strength lagers so wouldn’t know). I recall once many moons ago having to correct a barmaid over my order, so I always say “Gold Label Barley Wine” when ordering it now to be sure I’ll receive the good stuff! Brilliant drink. Would hate to see it disappear.

  13. Joe Says:

    I know, we’ll have to get it in bulk from the suppliers and start up a mail order business. That way we can make sure anyone who wants it can have it delivered to their door where ever they are in the country. What do you think???

  14. Noel Says:

    Bakewell Bez’s mention of her gran’s Christmas pudding reminds me of the most excellent recipe from Delia Smith (Complete Cookery Course) which I used to make, with Gold Label. I haven’t made the pud since moving to Thailand where Gold Label is, to the best of my knowledge, unobtainable. Regrettably, the scope for importing a beverage such as Gold label is very restricted due to the high import tariffs on alcohol from outside of the region. A single can would probably cost a day’s wages for a labourer here.

  15. dick huggett Says:

    hi the gold label is avery palatable brew which was often drunk witha half of mild beer .A similar brand was called final selection brewed in some southern breweries. the areas of kent &sussex often sold to female drinkers four small bottles iam sure for many headaches . My late fafher called it
    heel kicking ale as it used to cause the limbs to refuse any control by the user. A very enjoyabledrink in moderaion keep up the good work retired drinker Dick huggett !!

  16. RobBeer Says:

    Really should be labeled “Barley Wine Light” as the alcohol content has been gradually reduced over the years from 10.9% down to the current 8.5%.

    The “No 1″ comes from the fact that it was the first and also the market leader in barley wines.

  17. heeney09@tiscal.co.uk Says:

    just picked up 4 cans of gold label from asdas because its a drink I can remember enjoying with my fatherinlaw god rest him.I must admit adding a few whisky chassers to each can but by gosh what a treat ,a good few drinks without feeling bloated or uncomfortable.Better than tennants or carlseberg special brew unless you must have the volume

  18. DVC Says:

    A good read there, sir!

    Good to know that this one is still available over yonder, across the pond.

    Here in the States we’re just catching on with the idea of ale in cans, or rather, we are once again packaging them. There are some fairly soft and even session-worthy brews being filled in cans as well as heavier beasts in the 9% ABV range and with a wicked citrus hop character, but very few old ales and barleywines. Here’s to hoping that I can score a four pack of this one day, as we no longer have access to Whitbread ales of any kind, sadly.

    Cheers!

  19. Arcamedes Says:

    I remember first trying this stuff with a friend at 17 in a village pub. Needless to say we drank it like ordinary beer and ended up very inebriated

  20. Terry Collmann Says:

    ‘Mad Manc”, if you let your daughter drink eight cans of Gold Label, you’re a stupidly irresponsible fool. That’s the equivalent, in alcohol, of three quarters of a bottle of scotch – quite enough to kill a young teenager. You were lucky she threw it all up: she might well have lapsed into an alcoholic coma otherwise.

  21. John John John John John John John Says:

    Gold Label is quite tasty in my opinion. Drinking a can of it now, and I’m enjoying the pungent taste. That’s why google led me here.

    Nicely written blog, I like it.

  22. stan Says:

    where can you get this beer in calgary alta Ihave one can left over from a trip to UK. Best drink there is.

  23. Peter Says:

    May I add that the word “WINE” is there because the berw is fermented using a wine yeast and not a beer yeast, As these yeasts are capable of fermenting when higher alcohol levels have been generated alowing the fermentation to continue for longer, and therefore more alcohol.
    I remember drinking this barley wine 25 years ago when it was 10.2 percent and had a fuller flavour. you would have felt the drink burning your throat as it went down, The current version is a shadow of its former self and I personaly feel ripped off once again by the brewing industry.

  24. Nicholas Wroughton Says:

    Years ago[with the town's proximity to Burton-on-Trent]the only beers available around Swadlincote were Bass[inc No 1 Barley Wine,some Strong Stouts,Red Label/Triangle Sediment],Worthington[inc White Shield Sediment and in decline in my 60s/70s formative drinking years],Marstons[inc Owd Rodger Barley Wine-perhaps with the exception of their strongest bitter,reputed to be poor ale until the obviously 'old Worthington-inspired 'P'(Pedigree from '52 onwards)],and Ind Coope[inc the redoubtable Arctic/AAA Barley Wine--the most poorly regarded range of bitters by a drinking populace often employed in coal(as I was)/clay/ceramics and weaned on above average-strength brews].Less well-represented in ‘Swad’ than neighbouring Burton/S Derbys country villages were two brewers who would ultimately quit the area,Ben Truman and Everards.Bass[bitter]was noticeably stronger in certain pubs-a generic barley wine being added to the cask to extend beer life/keeping qualities?!.Also the idea of a hot poker being thrust into barley wine to reputedly alleviate cold symptoms-more often than not with such advice as ‘Yown got fert sweat it out on yer,yewth’-was also well known by those on life’s wrinklier fringe.

  25. Anonymous Says:

    As a fan of barley wine for 30 yrs, I am not happy that INBEV UK have diluted the product each year by 1% fom 12% to 10.9, to 9.5, to 8.5 and now t0 7.5%. The issue is not the strength but the flavour, the viscosity and the quality of what is a niche market, for discerning drinkers, I dislike shorts, I dislike large volume drinks, like lager, wine I can enjoy, in moderation, but at 12% is too much. I feel the brewers of this product are capitalising on the bw fans by adding water or soda to maximise profit. I have written to IN’bev expressing my opinion without a satisfactory response and would encourage others to do likewise

  26. Adam Says:

    Have to agree with Anonymous. Since reducing it to 7.5., the flavor is not what it used to be. I can remember a time when if I drank four cans I was “out for the count”. However, now not that effect. Super brews are 9%, so its more sense to buy those instead, and they are cheaper. But don’t get me wrong! As much as I love a strong beer, all in moderation.

  27. john clarke Says:

    please tell me who brews gold label and is it true they have stopped making it john

    • Joe Grammer Says:

      Don’t worry, they are still making it as I get my daily fix from Sainsburys. Brewed by “Inbev UK Ltd” who ever they are. I’m pretty sure it used to be Whitbread didn’t it?

  28. john clarke Says:

    thanks for the reponse to gold label. you are right it was whitbread
    i have a unopened bottle 1987 made by whitbread they sold the label years ago cheers joe kind regards.
    john

  29. Anonymous Says:

    It used to be good when it was 10% or so; but the last ones I tried were damn tinny; the bottled stuff was sweeter and far more pleasant

  30. tony Says:

    now 68yrs old been drinking gold label a good few years and its not anyware near as good as it was when it was 10% the cans now are 7.5% why?

    • Anonymous Says:

      Well, my main concern is trying to source a constant supply of the stuff. Sainsburys have now stopped stocking it as it wasn’t a good enough seller for them. I used to buy in bulk from Bookers Cash & Carry but alas they too have stopped stocking it.
      I’ve now got used to the 7.5% and makes it easier to give your local GP the true number of units consummed!!! Well; maybe not entirely truthfull. But I’ve drank the stuff every night for the last 38 years with no ill effects.
      I heard a report back from the funeral of a 105 year old gentleman the other day. His longevity was put down to his tipple of Gold Label every night!!

  31. Andrew Henderson Says:

    I remember it well – it was the sort of stuff we used to irresponsinly buy for girls when we were teenagers, presumably because rohypnol wasn’t available in the 1970′s

  32. Rich. Says:

    There are other barleywines for those who can’t lay their hands on No 1.
    Lees Harvest Ale at 11.5%
    Sam Smiths Strong Golden Barley Wine 10.2%
    Thornbridge Alliance 11%
    Hardknott Granite 10.4%
    Arbor Ales Double Trouble 12%

  33. simsy Says:

    just gota can to mix with my special brew..it aint what it used to be.gone down again to 7.5 % stikking to my snakebite top or thunderbirds

  34. Mallard Says:

    For me Gold Label is a bit like a fresh faced feminine LadyBoy. At first glance and first kiss everythings above board, then it hits you. There’s a penis.

    I first encountered Gold Label back in the autumn of 2001, i’ll be honest I was a bit skint and very naive. I’d gone down Cov Road Shops with the intention of scoring some ale for free, i.e nick the fucker. Anyway I was assessing the corner shops weaknesses and cctv blind spots when a little fella appeared from behind the counter. I about shit meself, something that features quite prominently in this little tale.

    ” Can I help you mate? we’ve plenty of good deals on today ”
    ” erm, well i’m after something that’ll get me larrupsed really cheaply ”
    ” aaah my friend, what you need is some gold label ”

    I heard the label bit and assumed he meant Carling. My initial thoughts were he was pulling my plonker as that muck is about 3.5% and even Harvey Price could hold a conversation off 4 cans of that.

    “ naah mate you’re alright, I’m after something a little stronger than that “

    “ trust me sir, this gold label will take you on an incredible journey. My brother-in-law had 2 cans last week and woke up with a dump in his underpant “

    30 seconds later I was out the shop with 4 cans of the stuff, surely Carling didn’t make anything so strong? It can’t be that bad, I mean come on I’d never seen a tramp having a nip on a gold label stubbie. But then again wasn’t Special Brew made by Carlsberg? The suspense was killing me, I didn’t even make it half way up my drive before I’d cracked the ring pull. I took a big glug, error. I thought I’d got cerebal palsy, the taste was beyond belief and the smell was like Fred West’s patio. I nearly dropped to my knees, it was the pits. I loved it.

    I fumbled with my keys and got in doors, the lads would be round by now and I couldn’t wait to let them try it. I was right, they’d ordered a Chinese but I didn’t need anything else this was a meal in itself. There was plenty of protests when I offered everyone a swig, the smell of the open can had infiltrated the room and it didn’t help that my dog had squeeled and legged it into it’s basket. After loads of dares and micky taking the gang got involved. Everyone hated it, I couldn’t understand what their problem was. Puffs.

    This is where there’s some debate as to the authenticity of the remainder of the story, mainly because I can’t remember. In the 12 years since, I’ve had many flashbacks, often nightmares that can only be rivalled by the aftermath of when I watched the film I.T when I was 8 years old. I think I woke up in a kestrel sanctuary in Cornwall with my nose pierced. I’m almost certain of it, put it this way wherever I woke up it took me nearly 14 hours to get back to my house. I’d been unconscious for 36 hours as my last memory was my 3rd can of hitler juice on Friday night and it was now lunchtime on Sunday. I’d done some kids paper round as well.

    My mates have been no help either, after they’d had their Chinese and drank me mum’s blue nun they wanted to go home but I was buzzin’ and fancied going up town on the pull. I bet my mates I could handle 5 double absinthe’s better than 5 pints of lager and the gauntlet was set. I bollocked all 5 one after the other and then chundered all down my brand new ben sherman and pod’s. They fucked off after that as I mouthed off in the chip shop and twatted someone over the head with my battered sausage.

    I think I ended up on a bus with a hen party, I pretended I was the stripper and a few of them helped me out of my clothes. Not because I was in good nick and they wanted to see my widgey but because I’d ralphed all down myself again and the smell of the gold label was melting faces.

    So that’s that. A void. One that is unlikely to ever be filled, nothing will ever be the same again.

    I highly recommend the stuff

  35. Well Done Graham First To 100 Posts! - Page 4 - Scaffolders Forum | Scaffold Tools | Scaffolding Jobs and Courses Says:

    […] Beer Review: Gold Label Very Strong Special Beer | Hywel's Big Log […]

  36. Wardy Says:

    The reason the brew gets weaker is the brewer being able to increase profits by not having to pay the alcohol tax. They are all doing it. Unfortunately the taste and viscosity suffers. That’s life..

  37. jim Says:

    I have a bottle of tennants lament extra strong special ale gold label 180ml barley wine 15% vol to mark the end of sheffields whitbread brewing activities 1993. It’s a full bottle and in good condition,still with the gold/yellow foil on. Any offers.

  38. Stan Says:

    Like others I’ve noticed the declining strength over the years, it doesn’t taste the same now, Little bottles back in the seventies, 10.9% were the best.

  39. SteveR Says:

    I hate it by itself but love it with a splash of lemonade. It then becomes the best strong full bodied beer ever ever ever..

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