There's a scene in The Secret of Monkey Island - that classic 90's point-and-click adventure - where our hero, Guybrush Threepwood, meets the pirate lords of Melee Island to tell them he wants to join their ranks. During this conversation, the subject of grog - the semi-mythical pirate drink - is brought up. Asking the pirates what grog is, they inform him that it is a secret recipe which contains one or more of the following: kerosene, propylene glycol, artificial sweeteners, sulphuric acid, rum, acetone, red dye number 2, scumm ™, axle grease, battery acid and/or pepperoni.
Which brings us onto Old Tom.
I usually scribble my thoughts into a notebook when I try a new beer, so I can (try to) form them into some sort of cohesive format (ha!) for an article on the site. For Old Tom, I genuinely wrote that it had a "strong dark brown sugar/molasses flavour with a hint of paint stripper" (not that I've tasted paint stripper before). So, like grog then.
Old Tom is a strange beast. I kind of wonder if it starts as Young Tom somewhere in a barrel, where it's just a run of the mill stout, indistinctive, inoffensive and immature. Then after a while it becomes just Tom - middle-aged, a little worn around the edges, a little boring, but perfectly passable. And after a while it finally matures into Old Tom - the cranky, mental bastard that you avoid at family reunions, lest they rot your brain with their edgy recollections of a youth that never happened.
I mean, it's not that it's a bad beer. If you're the type of person who likes to live dangerously - having a smoke while fixing a gas leak, or wandering through the 'rougher' parts of town wearing the wrong football shirt (both of which would be considered 'death by Suicide' in the city of Ankh-Morpork - then this might be the drink for you. Or, if you like you're stout with shot of meths mixed in for good measure, then add this beer to your 'Must Try' list.
It's a pretty complex beast - the sweet dark sugary taste hinted at above is present, with a bitter undertone from roasted malts and hops. There's also a hint of fruit, or fruit cake present - something along the lines of a boozy Christmas pudding - and maybe some liquorice in there for good measure. But all of that comes second place to the massive alcohol shot in the throat you get from the 8.5% ABV in each bottle. It's like mixing a brandy into a pint of stout - and I don't mean a shot of brandy - I'm talking half a bottle or something. 8.5% is strong for a beer and with Old Tom, you can taste every one of those ABV's as it melts the inside of your gullet on the way down to cremate your lower intestine.
There are some strong beers where, despite the high ABV, you don't really realise how strong they are until you try to walk after drinking a couple. Adnam's Broadside is (admittedly, only) 6%, but it isn't a really boozy beer. Scott recently reviewed Mondo's The Unicorn Whisperer which is an epic 9% (!!) and he didn't mention that it was particularly harsh - quite the opposite. He's also still alive as far as I know, thanks for asking.
And yet... and yet... I can't help but like Old Tom. Drinking a bottle is like a rite of passage, a test of strength. It's like taking a step back in time, when men were men and drinkers drank the kind of beverage where you wouldn't just lose the next day after drinking it, but very probably the next week. It's from a time where your life expectancy was about half what it is now (probably because of this beer...) and where there was always the danger of being conscripted into some meaningless war in a faraway land (so not much different to today actually...). It's from a time when men had perfectly groomed handlebar moustaches and chest hair that would make a gorilla blush. It's a piece of beer history - a heritage that is absolutely worth keeping alive. It isn't for everyone and it can taste hellishly strong to 'normal' beer drinkers, but it does have bags of character (and some) and its miles ahead of some of the boring, bland beers that folk are happy to drink these days.
So Old Tom, I salute you. You're a beer that every serious craft-beer drinker should try at least once - not least because of the claim to be 'The original craft beer' - and long may Robinson's Brewery continue to produce and unleash it on the world.