Why did Barley Wines become known as “Old Tom”?

Published on 9 May 2023 in

A Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale pump clip
Robinsons Old Tom logo – from the Robinsons website

A few miles from my house, in the heart of Stockport, sits the Robinsons Brewery.  It’s a pretty large regional brewery, brewing beer and running pubs across the north west of England and the north of Wales.  They’ve been around a long time with a history dating back to 1838. Not surprisingly then, they own a lot of the pubs in the town of Marple that I live in. 

One of my favourites is the Hatters Arms.  It’s a small stone built pub, created in the 1920s at the end of an older , split into three rooms.  Two were original, the third the result of an extension.  There’s loads of wood panelling, and a bar in the corridor.  One of the rooms includes old bell pushes on the wall that customers would have used to get served without going to the main bar. The Hatters has been extended and refurbished over the years, yet the more modern decor in some parts seem to feel thoroughly in keeping with the heritage elements. And its partitioned nature is a reminder of what pubs used to be like.  It’s also surprisingly quiet at times, even on a Saturday night.  I never quite understand why.  It’s lovely.

Recently I was in said pub on a Saturday night.  It was getting close to home time, but I had time for one more drink.  And staring at the bar I spotted the bottles of Old Tom.  Old Tom’s a barley wine.  A strong ale (8.5%) that comes in 330ml bottles, first brewed in 1899. 

On their website, Robinsons describe it like this:

Old Tom is almost as old as the brewery itself. Dubbed ‘The original craft beer’ this dangerously drinkable legend was born in 1899, when Tom, the old brewery cat, was sketched into immortality by the head brewer.

This superior dark ale is recognised, nationally and internationally, as one of the premier strong ales. It has won some of the industry’s most prestigious awards, including World’s Best Ale and Champion Beer of Britain.

Robinsons’s page on Old Tom

It’s not the best selling of Robinson’s beers, but it’s definitely a flagship having won many awards.  And it’s a lovely drop.  But I couldn’t help but wonder about the name.  Old Tom?

It’s named after the cat?  Okay, you can buy that.  Except in beer history, it’s far from the only beer there’s ever been called Old Tom. In fact there’s been many.

Oldham Brewery Old Tom bottle label
Oldham Brewery Old Tom bottle label

A few miles away, the Oldham Brewery also brewed an Old Tom.  It’s long gone now, but not forgotten.  In fact, if you watch Craig Cash and Phil Mealey’s excellent pub-based comedy Early Doors, there’s an Oldham Brewery Old Tom poster in the background.  It’s in the kitchen of the pub where two dodgy police officers sup beer, whisky and more. You can just about see it in this still from the programme.

A still from the comedy Early Dooes, with an Oldham Brewery Old Tom sign in the background.
A still from the comedy Early Doors, with an Oldham Brewery Old Tom sign just about visible in the background.

And that’s not all.  The Gartside Brewery of Ashton-under-Lyne also brewed an Old Tom.  It was “revived” a few years ago by an artist although not using the original recipe which is believed lost. And if you search the Alamy website, there’s a picture of a beer label from the Bent’s Brewery of Liverpool for their Old Tom.  And the Cornbrook brewery of Manchester also had a beer called Old Tom, as I found out whilst reading an article about watering down of beer.

Now I don’t know the history of those beers.  I couldn’t find out.  Maybe they came after the Robinsons version and traded on that success.  They’re all from breweries not far from Robinsons after all.

But Old Tom wasn’t only a northern name.  I know that from a historical beer recipe book published by the Durden Park Beer Club.  In it there’s a recipe from 1854 from the Chelmsford Brewery for a strong ale.  The name?  Old Tom.  I brewed it earlier this year so will be trying it out myself when it’s ready this Christmas.

Whilst Robinsons’ version could certainly be related to the brewery cat, the name certainly seems to predate Robinsons using it.  And it certainly seems somehow along the way that Old Tom became synonymous with strong ales and barley wines.  The question I can’t answer is… why?  There must be an answer.  But what it is, I have yet to find out. They can’t all have been named after cats, surely?

One thing is for sure though now.  When it comes to Old Tom beers, Robinson’s is the last one standing.