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Fuller’s Past Masters XX Strong Ale, 7.5%

It’s 2 September 1891. At the Chiswick brewery owned by Messrs Fuller, Smith and Turner attention is being given to a new beer. Marked in the brewing book as XXK, this is a strong beer designed to be matured before drinking (the K indicates ‘keeping’).

Fuller's Past MastersOne hundred and 20 years later, there are, of course, no bottles of XXK still in existence, so we have no way on knowing what the beer tasted like – until now.

Intrigued by the work done by their esteemed predecessors, today’s Fuller’s brewers have decided to indulge in a spot of time travel.

It all began when they asked brewing historian Ron Pattinson – a big, genial man whose idea of fun is poring over dusty brewery archives – to have a good look through the company’s old brewing books, with a view to identifying and interpreting recipes that could be recreated as part of a new series of bottle-conditioned ales called Past Masters.

The idea is that one historic beer will be released every six months and the first to hit the shelves is that 1891 brew XXK, here sold simply as XX Strong Ale.

The skill behind recreating a recipe from the distant past lies not in following the ingredients’ bill or the process to the letter but in adapting the original for today’s supplies and brewing methods.

For instance, the brewers were intrigued to find that the recipe for XXK contained no British malt whatsoever, with the grains being provided by Germany, Moravia (Czech Republic) and the Middle East.

Needing to find a suitable substitute, they called on the assistance of Simpson’s Malt and chose a barley to convert called Plumage Archer, possibly the closest available today to what was on offer back in the 1890s.

Invert sugar – typical of the late Victorian era – makes up the rest of the fermentable material. The hops were more obvious, with Fuggle and Golding still knocking around all these years later.

Three months’ maturation – some in wooden casks – was allowed at the brewery before the beer was then conditioned in the bottle.

Enthusiastic Welcome

Past Masters was launched at the end of November last year in front of a group of enthusiastic beer writers. This first beer in the range pours a clear amber colour and presents an aroma of bitter oranges (the Goldings influence) and very subtle caramel (the malt contribution).

The strength is obvious in the taste – more than is evident in the stronger Fuller’s Vintage Ale – with bitter oranges and a good smack of bitterness from the hops adding contrast to a full, rich, sticky sweetness from the abundant malt. I anticipate that some of the sweetness will diminish with time in the bottle, which will be to the beer’s benefit.

The finish is very dry, with tangy, leafy hops dominating and more oranges lingering on the palate. It’s gently warming, as you’d expect, and throughout there’s a distinct spirit note to underline its potency.

That’s the aspect that makes it less appealing to me than other Fuller’s strong ales, but when you order Fuller’s you know you’re going to get quality and this beer is certainly no exception.

The Past Masters series has great potential – just imagine the forgotten treats that must exist in the Fuller’s archives – and XX Strong Ale is a bold start.

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