GOOD news; I’ve been to Crossharbour ASDA again and bought three more abnormal bottles. The first of which is this robust little bottle of Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale that cost £1.58 pence.
ASDA’s immense swathes of shelving, make choosing the quirkiest bottles a challenge. I picked this one because has a cat as a mascot, the bottle looks like it was designed by Edwardians and because there aren’t enough strong ales in the world. And yes, all that large writing you can see is embossed onto the glass. I’ve never seen a bottle like it. At least not outside of museums.
Wisely, Robinsons put the details you want to know, out of the way, up on the neck.
I love what strong ale does. Sure, super strength lager does strong as well. But strong ale on the other hand does strong, and proves that you don’t need to sacrifice your taste buds and stomach contents in the process. A bit like having a ploughman’s sandwich for lunch instead of a burger drenched in lard and chilli sauce.
The other thing to love about strong ale is how uncompromising it is. Other ales have all kinds of interesting flavours and tastes from bitterness to biscuits. And that’s all very tasty. But what if you just want straight forward ale that’s as not been cut down to fit a market segment? If you’re not a target demographic, you’ll want to buy a strong ale.
Unsurprisingly, this makes the alcoholic volume slightly important. Fortunately, Robinsons come straight out with the number 8.5%. A number that puts it up there with the alcoholics favourites and with the most potent strong ales and continental beers.
The neck label doesn’t stop there. With a row of four medals, it informs us that it has been an “Award Winning Ale Since 1899”. Unless my calendar is wrong, that makes this ale one-hundred and ten years old. Though hopefully not this very bottle, because it would almost certainly have gone off during the intervening century and now be much too valuable to crack open.
What does the front label look like?
It doesn’t have one. The embossed words “Robinsons Old Top Strong Ale” make up the simplest roundel in the world. The sticker in the centre is of a winking cat. Unconventional, but it does it for me. Let me know what you think in the comments at the end of the post.
The back label is the place to go for the details. And what a crowded contrast to the front it proves to be.
Cleverly, the vital statistics are right at the top. The alcoholic volume of 8.5% is there again in case you missed it, and that this is a 330ml bottle. Under that, because this is a quirky British ale, not a charmless European, we get a story. Highlights of which are that Old Tom is “almost as old as the brewery itself” and that the head brewer illustrated the recipe in his note book with the cat’s face.
They then describe it as a “dark and warming superior strong ale with aromas of dark fruit and a palate booming with ripe malt and hops followed by a deep port wine finish”. Crikey, that sounds intense. And, as I write this in the middle of July, I realise this is as inappropriate as Cornetto in the middle of winter. It sounds like the complete opposite to citrusy golden summer ale.
They continue the story with news that Old Tom has won lots of prestigious industry awards and that it “is now recognised as one of the most famous strong ales brewed in England”. Under that, sensibly, they have the message “Drink with caution! But most of all ENJOY.” Wise words. Even though I can’t remember that last time I saw an alcoholic on the street drinking anything other than lager or cider.
Next to that is a tiny logo. The only words I can make out on it as “Beer Academy” and “Beer Education Trust”. If that means anything to you, leave a message at the end of this post.
Then there’s a bit more about who made this bottle. It turns out to be by a brewer Frederic Robinson Ltd. And it comes from Stockport. What’s more, the Interweb has reached northern England, because they have a website at www.frederic-robinson.com. I implore you to have a look too, as it’s better than the Flash-heavy tripe that the big brewers pass off as websites. The downside is that it will make you want beers that you can’t buy in shops where you live.
Under that, we reach the seriously small print. We learn that this bottle as 2.8 UK units of alcohol. Or, to put it another way, just two of them will be enough for the nanny-state to start tut-tutting you. Most of the rest of the text is in other languages. Sadly, because this isn’t a continental bottle, the only ingredient we know about is “malted barley”.
With nothing else to read, we reach the fun bit. What does Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale taste like? Will I like it? And do I think you should try it? I’m looking forward to finding out.
Watch out for the insane head. It’s volcanic at first, so give it a minute to settle down. Thanks to the bottle neck, it’s almost impossible to pour without some glugging. The thing you notice right after that is just how dark it is. This is a long way from pale yellow lager. Not as dark as porter or stout, but getting close.
What does Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale smell of? Surprisingly, it’s not all that pungent. To smell it, a good hard sniff is in order. The bottle described it as having “aromas of dark fruit”. Pretty much what I’m picking up. It smells of Christmas pudding.
What does this room temperature Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale taste of? The label described it as “booming with ripe malt and hops followed by a deep port wine finish”. My first sip reveals it to live up to the intense and interesting billing. First impression are that this is going to be one of the most intense, strongest tasting and most wine-like of any ale I’ve ever tried.
A couple more sips, and I’m beginning to figure out the flavours and tastes. It really is one of the most complex and interesting ales I’ve tried. You could easily pass an entire evening trying to fathom it.
The flavour is warmly malty and hoppy. But it’s the aftertaste that dominates Old Tom. It has the most intense, strong, full-bodied, warm and fruity-in-a-port-or-Christmas-pudding-way aftertaste I’ve ever tasted. I must admit, it was a bit much at first, but I’m quickly warming to it. That or it’s warming me up to it.
What am I liking about Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale? As you’ve probably guessed, quite a lot. I love that it’s a strong ale in a world that has little room for it. I love that it’s so different to any ale you will ever drink. And that scores it serious points for taking risks in distinctiveness and uniqueness. I like the strong taste and high volume. I like how quickly you get used to it and how drinkable it is, once you have. All of which points to quality ingredients and brewing. And you’ve got to love the packaging.
What am I not liking about Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale? First up, it’s hard to find, and pricey when you do. The intense rush of taste will floor some people. Unless you’re adventurous or used to strong flavours, the first sip could put you right off. And that would be a shame. I love that it takes risks with the taste, but the flipside of that risky strategy is that it won’t please everyone.
How can I sum up Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale? No wander it has won so many awards over the last century. Distinctive, exceptional and Christmassy are just some of the adjectives I’m going to choose to describe it. This is one of the very best British ales, but be forewarned, it might be too strong for you.
Have you tried Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale? Got an opinion even if you haven’t? Do please leave your opinions, corrections, facts, recommendations and places to buy here in the comments.