A month back I decided to start drinking my stash of Fuller's Vintage Ale and compare the original tasting notes to the beer now. I didn't know it, but Fuller's themselves were planning an event where a full vertical tasting of all 15 vintages would take place, and a week after my post, lo, I got an invite.
Thus it was that I joined an assembly at The Griffin Brewery in the Hock Cellars to receive a presentation from Yer Man John Keeling and taste the beers guided by both he and Emma Watts, the trade quality manager at Fuller's. The evening was a big deal, as it's likely the last time that the first 15 vintages will be tasted in one event, due to shortages of some years. The 1998 is especially scarce, I understand.
Being more interested in the atmos and vibe generated, I wasn't aiming on making any rigorous notes of each beer, but luckily Adrian Tierney-Jones has done that job, while Steve Williams offers his thoughts here. However, we kicked off with the just-available 2011 beer and went backwards.
The carnage on our table after trying all 15 beers
The 2011 is big and bold, with in-your-face carbonation forcing huge zesty oranges and almonds (bakewell tart, says ATJ, rightly) into your mouth. Slightly boozy while so young, it wasn't 'hot' or overwhelming. A beer you could drink and enjoy right now. But that wouldn't be the point.
We went through each vintage in clusters of three at a fairly impressive clip. The 2010 had softened and sweetened, showing that 2011 the path it will probably tread over the next 12 months. As the beer went down and the alcohol loosened tongues, there was an astonishing breadth of flavours and characteristics suggested. Blue cheese, fudge, apricot, vanilla, muscat, tobacco, cherries, brandy, figs, chocolate, raisins, Calvados, Cointreau, Marmite... and all the way through, like a sinuous strand of DNA, is that yeast, imparting its own unique character.
My favourite was the 2007. A sweet nose suggested a saison, and in the mouth a curious herbal astringency was present which seemed at odds with the other beers that had bracketed it. It made me think of those Ricola cough sweets, or a saison like Stillwater Stateside. A remarkable beer considering the whole thing had come together with only the house Fuller's yeast and time working away at it. Worth looking a bottle out for re-visiting next year, methinks.
I've observed before that Fuller's don't get the love from the geeks, but consider - in the mid-90's a British family brewer wanted to brew a beer that explored the effects of time way before almost any other brewer in the world was interested. Was there ever any other UK-brewed beer like this? Maybe Thomas Hardy Ale, back in the day. To have retained that commitment speaks volumes about the dedication to exploring the possibilities of beer and brewing science.
If you haven't already tried this beer, do yourself a favour and get hold of a few bottles of the 2011. Drink one now, then have the others in 6 and 12 months. Waitrose usually have it this time of year, and I've seen it in Sainsbury's in some years (last time was 2009, I think). Or you can get it direct from Fuller's. They can also sell you most of the previous year's beers, as well.
Finally, it was a good night to put faces to names. Ron Pattinson, Steve Williams, Mark Dorber, ATJ, Tom Stainer, Rupert Ponsonby - all people I know either online or by reputation, but never met. Young Dredgie was there, as well, so time for the obligatory pap shot of him... Somebody on that table appears to have OCD judging by the tidy parade of bottles. I bet they're all in date order, too...
Thanks to Fuller's for a cracking evening of beer.