Fuller's Rolls Out the Vintages
In 1997, Fuller’s released its first Vintage Ale. The brewers at the time may well have hoped that the release would be the first of many, but I doubt if they seriously expected to still be producing the beer twenty years later.
What may have seemed even more unlikely would be the sight of people drinking – and fully appreciating – a number of these beers many years after they were put in the bottle, but that’s what happened earlier this year when the Chiswick brewery raided its cellar for a vertical tasting.
Vintage Ale is an 8.5%, bottle-conditioned barley wine released annually in the autumn.
Supplies of some vintages are now so low as to make it infeasible for a large group of guests to taste them all, so on this occasion a selection of bottles were presented on the table, introduced individually by Fuller’s brewing director John Keeling.
The basic recipe is the same for each edition. Essentially, the beer is based on the company’s Golden Pride and built on a grist of pale and crystal malts. The barley varieties do change, however, and the hops are also continually varied.
The original beer was seasoned with Target, Northdown and Challenger hops, plus some Golding hop oil; the most recent release in 2016 featured Nelson Sauvin, Northdown, Challenger and Golding.
This, of course, makes it impossible to truly compare one year’s offering with any that have gone before or arrived since. But, even if the recipes were identical, the ageing process would foul things up anyway.
As a beer matures in a bottle, a number of chemical reactions take place. Body and malt character are eroded as the yeast continues to nibble away at the fermentable sugars, and hop flavours – fresh and zingy when the beer is young – gradually lose their oomph.
Oxidation and other chemical changes can also take place, developing Madeira-wine or cherry/marzipan-like characteristics.
All of this becomes perfectly obvious to the assembled guests once the beers begin to flow and we start to travel back in time. First up is the most recent version.
Vintage Ale 2016 has a deep amber hue, with plenty of malt in the aroma, along with bitter oranges, a slight grassiness and a touch of marzipan.
The taste falls on the sweet side, with caramel, marzipan and a little spirit-like warmth contrasting against more orange fruitiness, before a rather dry, warming finish with yet more bitter orange character.
From here we step back to 2015 and 2014, both of which are terrific beers although now tasting mellow with age, as the freshness and exuberance of youth become a thing of the past. Then we jump a few years to 2011.
As you’d expect from a beer that is more than five years old, it is showing some characteristics of maturity, notably a hint of Madeira, but it is still highly enjoyable.
By the time, we reach the 2007 vintage, ageing has become a key feature. Citrus fruit has disappeared, leaving more of a tropical note, although surprisingly oranges are then back in evidence in the 2006 beer that has just a slight dullness caused by ten years in the bottle.
The beer from 2005 is less memorable – heavier and thicker than the 2006 and, while not unpleasant, no longer a great drinking experience – while the 2002, strangely, still seems rather sweet. Although hop bitterness helps dry the finish, it is now a rather soupy affair, clearly suffering the trials of time.
Finally, our earliest offering takes us back to 1999. For a beer that is seventeen years old, it is astonishingly drinkable and still has some tangy hop notes, but it seems rather tired and is not a beer you’d really seek out.
What is remarkable about all these beers is that their ageing pathway is not straightforward. The chemical reactions that affect the colour, aroma and flavour are constantly evolving, sometimes introducing positive changes and sometimes negative.
You will have a different tasting experience depending on where in the ageing cycle you sample the beer, and, even if that experience is disappointing, you might find that a few months later that same beer may have improved. That means some of the beers we found less inspiring on this occasion may yet pick up.
At the moment, the vintage that, to me, is drinking the best is the 2010. I single it out because it remains pleasantly sweet and mellow, with a touch of aniseed and a delightfully airy texture that makes it appear so slender and elegant for the strength. It is a brilliant illustration of how bottle conditioning can create a little magic.
This was the third vertical tasting of Vintage Ale I’ve been lucky enough to attend. The first was when the range was ten years old, the second five years later. On that occasion, we were warned that there probably wouldn’t be another, given declining stocks and the gradual deterioration of some of the bottles.
Well, they somehow managed to celebrate the twentieth anniversary in fine fashion and I’m not the only one looking forward to the beer’s silver jubilee in five years’ time.