It's not often my wife's crashing physical ineptitude wins my thanks, but one act of startling stupidity - of heroic clumsiness - has made me a very contented man, thankful for a maladroit life partner.
'John, I'm just calling about your beer...'
'Claire, I'm at work...a beer is of course the last thing on my mind, so dedicated am I to my numerous tasks and legion responsibilities [current and future employers take note] - what can possibly be up?'
'The fridge door...a bottle...it just flew out...'
'No...not the Captain Lawrence IIPA; not Pipedream, the Alvinne, De Struise & Pipeworks collaboration; not the BrewDog AB:01 or BrewDog AB:02 I've stored in there to guard them from the heat? For the love of god, woman...the humanity!'
'The Æther Blæc?! Dave Bailey's limited edition 8% stout, fermented with Belgian style yeast, matured in a 28-year Islay whisky cask along with dry hops and then bottled in a limited run of only 458?! Cumbria's finest?! What British Guild of Beer Writers Beer Writer of the Year 2009 Pete Brown has dubbed, and I quote, "one of the best wood-aged beers yet"?!'
'Yes,' she chillingly affirmed.
The situation was indeed grave. My wife's foot may have been grazed, necessitating a salve of TCP and a waterproof Boots plaster, but - far more pressingly - the Æther Blæc cap had clearly been heard to go 'phust' and viscous bubbles were beginning to emerge. Claire's report had an air of the crazed: 'should I pour it away?' How could she be expected to know? To understand? Such beers as dreams are made on...no, my only option was to rush to the Tube, run like the proverbial for a train back to Cambridge and try to salvage what might be left after what was surely the most important spillage of black, thick liquid in living memory.
This was an environmental disaster the birds would actually flock to - if actually rendered at sea, no tern would be left unstoned.
Two hours later, back home, I was naturally more sanguine - this was an excuse, after all, to try a beer impertinently early that had insisted on being cellared...
And I'm so glad I did. Just take a look at that picture. Such condition, such inviting, thick-set foam. The nose was all rich olorosso - anyone who has had Gonzalez Byass's peerless Matusalem will be familiar with the rich vinous, fruity aroma of Churchill's favourite sherry. Then the stouty smoke, a baritone note just the Ovaltine side of Marmite, accompanied by crashing wave vapours of boozy scotch. The taste was extreme, but balanced - extremely balanced, smooth. With rich, imperial stouts there is a very fine line to tread - too bitter and the heady malts jar and the whole becomes wincingly astringent; too much body and the sweetness can be cloying. It takes skill to hit that middle point - burnt, but clean; rich, but refreshing; bitter, but not harsh.
Hardknott Æther Blæc doesn't just hit that sweet spot. It is that sweet spot. Have I had a better cask-aged beer? Hell, no. Have I had a better stout? Not many.
Thankfully, Mill Road's stunning Bacchanalia off licence has a case of this stunning achievement, so I was able to grab another to lay down (bottle 202, since you asked). I may buy a couple more, so if you're in the Cambridge area, I'd get cracking. Can't wait to try Granite, Dave's 10% barley wine (bottle 300 of 504). To get your grubby mits on some, keep an eye out on beermerchants.com - it'll be appearing there soon.