The annual International Sherry Week goes from November 7th through 13th. (The Sherry Cheat Sheet can help you navigate the complex world of sherry and find something fun to drink.) This year, I celebrated Sherry Week with an ale aged in sherry casks. UK brewer J.W. Lees matures its Harvest Ale in barrels previously used for sherry.
This beer is fit for a wine glass because it gains wine flavors from the sherry barrels and has a wine-like level of alcohol at 11.5% abv. The picture doesn't do the color justice — Harvest Ale is gorgeous. It pours thick and practically glows a deep orange under the light. It's cloudy because it's unfiltered, and you can see the lees (dead yeast) in the bottom of the empty bottle.
Ale and oloroso sherry aromas come through, including caramel, yeast/bread dough, baked apple, nuts, and vanilla. The flavors are smooth, rich, complex, and slightly sweet. The tart, fruity, yet crisp ale is complemented by the sherry influence of caramelized fruit cake (apple, apricot, fig, nuts), toffee, and vanilla. But Harvest Ale isn't overly sweet or cloying. The mid-palate and finish have a slightly bitter, almost vegetal quality which is often present in sherry (in a good way), and the flavors are brightened further by the slight bite of hops. The balance here is impressive — sweet yet bitter, rich yet crisp, thick yet not-too-heavy. So delicious.
I would have liked to taste the ale on its own, to get a better idea of which flavors came from the beer and which came from the sherry. The J.W. Lees web site says the base beer is a barleywine, which means it might have already had some of the flavors I associate with sherry.
This is a great ale to drink in the autumn and sip like a fine wine. Harvest Ale is priced like a fine wine, too, at roughly a dollar an ounce (about $10 for this 9.3 oz bottle, or the equivalent of a $25 bottle of wine). It may be expensive, but it's worth every penny. Buy a bottle to give as a gift, to enjoy at a holiday celebration, or to reward yourself after your Thanksgiving guests have gone home. Harvest Ale available at a variety of stores around Houston, but I bought mine at Beers Looking at You in Webster.