J.W. Lees Harvest Barley Wine

December 22, 2008 by Aaron Goldfarb | Filed under Brewer: J.W. Lees, Country: United Kingdom, Grade: A plus, Grade: A regular, Style: Barley wine.

ALL 11.5% bottled

My friend DW called me last week. He’d just acquired a bunch of rare and highly-touted beers. He thought I should come down to Washington, DC to visit him. That’s how I plan vacations, that’s how I’m lured out of town, by the offer of quality brews. Not much else matters.

DW was most interested in me trying a new discovery of his, the J.W. Lees collection of barley wines. I had never heard of them and actually thought he had misspoke and was talking about the horrific J.W. Dundees, makers of the terrible Honey Brown gas station lager. He wasn’t. He was talking about a brewery in England that comes out with a highly-notable and limited barley wine which they release every year on December 1 to celebrate the newest harvest of barley and hops. According to J.W. Lees, only the first delivery of the year’s classic barley malt ‘Maris Otter’ and the classic hop variety ‘Goldings’ from East Kent is used. Sounded exciting.

Meant to be laid down for years, DW was able to score vintage bottles from 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2004, all of which I tried.

In ascending order of quality, my thoughts on each.


Though I found this vis-a-vis the others to be the “weakest” vintage, it was the first one I tried coincidentally, and I was still absolutely floored.  There’s really nothing like this, save one other beer I will mention in a bit.  Pretentious and annoying beer nerds might denigrate this with a favorite buzzword of their’s:  “cloying.”  To some beer dorks, any beer with even the slightest bit of sweetest they consider to be bad.  Now sometimes sweetness is a bad thing–those candy flavored malt beverages chicks dig par exemplar–but when it’s such a pure, fruity sweetness as here, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Like all the Harvests, it pours dark like a port or sherry.  Goes down so smooth, it is absolutely shocking that it has such an high ABV.  A near-flawless brew, but better ones were yet to come.



Whenever the Vice Blogger leaves town, upon his return his local friends e-mail him and text him, “Heh heh, bet you got some great bloggable stories from the weekend, eh?”  And, you know, that’s not always the case.  I had an absolute fucking blast this weekend, punishing my body with booze and tons of greasy foods that were dipped into tons of mayonnaise-based sauces, but my weekend really didn’t produce any “blog-worthy” stories.  I hooked up with no women, I got in no trouble, very little hijinks occurred.

Well…maybe one story.  Wasted on Friday night, my friends and I weren’t let into a “speakeasy” in Alexandria, Virginia.  No big deal, I don’t like the kind of place that in the year 2008 thinks I’m going to be impressed by a faux-exclusive faux-hot spot.  Though we had heard that the bar harbored lots of sexy and willing cougars typically competed for by effete local men.

Later in the night, at a smoky dump filled with women with bad bangs and the men that tolerate them, DW stumbled upon a Pulaski County, MO sheriff’s badge that some visiting man of the law had apparently drunkenly left behind.  I’ve lost countless things behind at bars whilst drunk, but never a badge.  Me and my friends are not the best people in the world and quite turpitudinous, but even we looked to return the badge.  Casually.  Unable to find a drunken Andy Griffith tumbling off a bar stool, we left the dive and headed back to the speakeasy.

We located the secret blue light denoting the hidden front door, rang the bell, and when the hostess slid open the tiny eye slot to speak with us–“Sorry, we’re full.”–DW slapped his badge in her face, asking her:  “You don’t have a soft spot for law enforcement do you?”

Shockingly, she didn’t.  And three phony police officers weren’t let in.  I have a feeling the same thing didn’t happen to Elliot Ness way back when.

The 2004 vintage I thought to be a hair better than the 2000.  Dark fruits like a dubbel, but smooth and sweet like a barley wine.  Like all the Harvests, a nose of maple syrup.



Now we were getting to the big boy vintages.  1999 was damn near perfect, huge with barely any carbonation.  DW and I drank them room temperature, splitting 12 ounce bottles, which was more than enough for both of us.  Though not that boozy or punishing, this is one helluva sipper.  And, actually, while this is not punishing in a biting alcohol way, it is sure punishing to the palate.  Stone calls their double IPA “Ruination” because they jokingly believe that it will absolutely destroy your palate from possibly enjoying any other beers in the future.  Well, Harvests are the real ruination.  The syrupy brews absolutely coating the insides of your cheek, your tongue, and your throat.  We tried to drink a very well-regarded beer after this bottle and it tasted like a fat man’s bathwater.

We found that one either needs to drink several shit beers to cleanse their palate after Harvest or use some equally extreme beer to do the trick.  The delicious and overhopped-in-a-great-way Sam Adams Imperial Pilsener worked wonders for us in the latter regard.



We expected this to be the creme de le creme of the Harvests and we were not disappointed in the least.  I believe this is the absolute oldest vintage of Harvest still able to be found on the market, but I could be wrong.  And it’s certainly the oldest beer I’ve ever had, excluding the thousands and thousands of Milwaukee’s Best cans I drank back during my sophomore year of college in 1998.

DW got turned onto Harvests when he was talking with a local beermonger and mentioned that Utopias is one of his favorite beers in the world.  The guy noted that if he liked Utopias that Harvest 1998 was similar…and better.  I refused to believe that, but, you know, the guy was 100% right.

A similar nose and taste to Utopias, it’s slightly less ABV and slightly more sweetness makes it more a bit more palatable.  Quite a bit cheaper per ounce too.  Boisterous and fruity, this one is hard to classify as any sort of alcohol.  As much like a port as a barley wine, I can safely say that you have never tried something quite like this.

One of the best beers I’ve ever had, world-class.  Seek out at all costs.


3 Responses to “J.W. Lees Harvest Barley Wine”

  1. Dave says:

    I have 99 and 00 in the fridge right now. Guess I need to pull them out.

  2. Have you had any Harvests before or would those be your first? Wow, so good.

  3. Dave says:

    I’ve had 99 at a bar. That’s about it. But I was so drunk I don’t remember much. I do remember it was rich.

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