GBG Belgium Advert

How I Created … Fuller's Brewer's Reserve

by John Keeling

To me, the most important part of the process of creating a new beer is the inspiration. That can come from tasting other beers, tasting other drinks, tasting other foods. It can even come from chance discussions with fellow brewers and even with beer writers.

John KeelingI wonder if any beers have been inspired by listening to music or looking at a painting? I also wonder if looking out the window can inspire you to make a beer, if so, Stuart Howe in Cornwall must make different beers to me looking out at the London landscape.

I want to tell you a story about such inspiration.

With a group of my Fuller’s colleagues, I visit the Glenmorangie distillery in Tain. We also go to Edinburgh to look at the blending.

Seeing all the wooden barrels, something clicks into place – all those blogs and historical articles I have read by Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell. Thinking to myself about 'stale' beer, suddenly here is an opportunity.

'Excuse me,' I ask. 'Is there any chance of getting any of these barrels to put beer in?' 'Sure, how many do you want?' That moment is the beginning of the story of Brewer's Reserve.

One morning, all these Glenmorangie ex-bourbon casks arrive. We fill them with 8.5% ABV Golden Pride. The questions start. 'What do you think will happen to the beer?' 'Don’t know.' 'How long will we leave the beer in cask?' 'Don’t know.' 'What should we do with them when the beer is ready?' 'Don’t know.' I just think it might be fun finding out.

Wow Factor

Well, after three months we taste them. Wow. The flavour is great, all whisky and fruity beer. Quite heavy, though. The average strength turns out to be 12% ABV.

I think it might be a good idea to bottle this beer. Let’s tell Marketing. Almost as an afterthought, somebody mentions Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. Good idea. Better inform them, too. After some to-ing and fro-ing, back comes the message 'Don’t do it. It’s against the law.'

Apparently, this practice is called grogging and has been illegal since 1800-and-something. Bugger.

'Well,' says Marketing, 'what are you going to do with the beer?' 'Leave it where it is,' say I, 'while we figure this out'.

They look good in the brewery, all those wooden casks. The tour guides enjoy telling their groups about Keeling’s folly. After 12 months, they ask the question again. They get the same answer. I haven't figured it out yet.

What about the taste? Well, now the beer is becoming tart, in some cases very tart. I am under pressure to tip the beer down the drain. However, I’m made of sterner stuff. Nobody is going to tell me to tip this beer away.

Deep down, I just feel that this beer has the potential to be fantastic. Those brewers of 200 years ago must have known what they were doing with their ageing.

Work of Genius

Then I go on a Board trip to Cantillon, the famous Belgian brewery. A certain member of the Board hates the beers; I think they are a work of genius.

Ageing a beer for three years then blending some fresh beer into it really opens up the flavour. The beer tastes better after blending than before. Now where can we use that?

Sitting at my desk, I wonder why we can’t do this with the beer we have in cask. But what good would it do? The beer might taste better but will it still break the law? In frustration, I do something I don’t normally do. I read the rules.

The rules state that, if the beer rises by more than 0.1 % ABV when in the barrel, it becomes a spirit. If it is a spirit, then you must pay spirit duty. To pay spirit duty, you must have a spirit licence. Our finance team is opposed to getting a spirit licence.

Fuller's Brewer's ReserveBut what if we dilute the beer with a fresh, weaker beer so that the ABV does not rise by 0.1%. I hastily fire an e-mail to HM Revenue & Customs. A few weeks later, they reply. Yes, that will be okay. 

Quickly organising some tastings, we decide the best beer to dilute with is ESB. Yes, we dilute with ESB, not a phrase you will hear very often!

Everything is ready to go at last so, six months later, when Marketing has designed the box and label, we bottle Brewer's Reserve No 1. I am very pleased and so is everybody else.

We now have a series of Brewer's Reserves that we intend to release every year. However, you might notice that there isn’t one this year. Why?

Well Revenue & Customs have now, after four years, decided that, because it rises by more than 0.1% during the process, then we still break the law. What are you going to do about that I hear you ask? Don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet.

There you go. The story of Brewer's Reserve. All luck and happenchance. No process, no plan: just inspiration.

Bookmark and Share