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Classic Beer of the Month November 2009: Fuller's Vintage Ale

Fuller’s Vintage Ale, 8.5% (UK)

Like Christmas, some of the best things in life only come around once a year. That’s certainly the case with Fuller’s Vintage Ale, brewed in spring or early summer, allowed to condition for up to eight weeks before bottling, and then released at the end of October. It is always worth waiting for.

Fuller's Vintage AleVintage Ale is a credit to Fuller’s. The London brewers don’t produce a poor beer: all their regular ales are well worth drinking. But sometimes they stretch themselves a little and create something sublime.

So many brewers just make do with their bread and butter beers, the ones that bring in the weekly cash flow, and never try for anything special, but that can’t be said of the Fuller’s team, who now include such complex beers as the wood-aged Brewer’s Reserve and the naturally acidic Gale’s Prize Old Ale in their repertoire.

Regal Treatment

The beer that kicked off this trend was Vintage Ale. Back in 1997, esteemed head brewer Reg Drury put together a recipe for a limited-run bottled beer that would be given the regal treatment – year-dated, individually numbered and lavishly packaged in a presentation box.

To do justice to the concept, the beer had to be bottle conditioned and Reg figured that it would keep well in the bottle for at least three years. His estimation fell somewhat on the short side. I tasted that original 1997 brew ten years after it went on sale and it was still magnificent.

The origins of Vintage Ale lie in Golden Pride, Fuller’s almost-as-wonderful barley wine. This 8.5% brew was created in 1966 and is carefully constructed from pale and crystal malt, with Target, Northdown and Golding hops. Vintage Ale follows broadly the same template, except that it is bottle conditioned and employs different malts and hops.

The varieties change year by year. The 2009 Vintage Ale, just released, is brewed with Tipple pale malt, crystal malt and Golding hops.

These ingredient switches make it difficult to strictly compare one year’s beer with another’s, although, given the maturation process in the bottle, that is impossible anyway. But varying the ingredients does add a splash of difference to each year’s product.

The 2002 Vintage Ale, for instance, I considered to be sweeter and maltier than most, whereas the 2008 was, for me, relatively sharp and citrus-like in the hop department.

2009 Arrives

Early samplings of 2009 – of which 160,000 bottles have been produced, many to be sold in Sainsbury's – reveal velvety malt sweetness, some jammy, almost apricot fruitiness and just a touch of caramel, with cherry-like fermentation flavours edging through. After a peppery, warming swallow, sticky malt leaves more sweetness on the tongue until hops build sufficiently to dry the finish.

In time, that sweet stickiness will no doubt diminish and new characteristics will take shape. Indeed, as the beer grows older, it does so with considerable grace. So-called ‘vertical tastings’ of different years’ beers reveal just how brilliantly the ale matures in the bottle, with marzipan, raisin and sherry notes often nudging their way through.

Today’s head brewer, John Keeling, reckons Vintage Ale tastes best after about five years in the bottle – if you have the resolve to keep it that long.

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