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Fuller's Vintage Advantage

Added: Tuesday, April 1st 2008

Fuller's Vintage Ale (8.5%), first brewed in 1997, has become one of the most-talked about British beers, an iconic ale treated as seriously as fine wine. Every September, the new vintage is eagerly sought-after. 50,000 bottles are produced, packaged in an attractive claret box and a priced around 3.50. The beer is available in branches of Waitrose and specialist beer shops.

Though based on the brewery's Golden Pride barley wine, Vintage Ale is unpasteurised and bottle fermented. Following fermentation, it is conditioned in the brewery for a month and then re-seeded with fresh house yeast.

Head brewer John Keeling invited me to a tasting of all the vintages to see how how they have deepened and matured over the years. The first two vintages were the work of now retired head brewer Reg Drury: John succeeded him in 1999. Readers may care to compare my tasting notes with those produced a couple of years ago by Tom Cannavan.

Some of the early vintages may no longer be available: check with the brewery shop on 020 8996 2000 or Fuller's Vintage Ale 1997 Creamy malt, burnt fruit and tart hops on the nose. Biscuity malt, tangy fruit and hop resins in the mouth, followed by a long finish that is malty, fruity, hoppy and dry. The beer has lots of warming alcohol but is thinner than later editions. Fuller's Vintage Ale 1998 Vanilla and marzipan on the nose with a woody note. Spicy hops come through in the mouth with dark fruit and biscuity malt. The woody note persists in the finish balanced by tart fruit, hop resins and dark malt. Fuller's Vintage Ale 1999 Blood oranges, hop resins, dark malt and a hint of celery (!) on the nose. Sweet, rich malt fills the mouth with burnt fruit and bitter hops. The finish is dry, fruity and malty. Fuller's Vintage Ale 2000 Powerful hints of creamy chocolate, sultanas and butterscotch on the nose. The palate is bittersweet with dark fruit, biscuity malt and light hop resins. The finish is dry with bitter hops, dark malt, burnt fruit and butterscotch. Fuller's Vintage Ale 2001 Slightly sour nose, highly complex with roasted grain, burnt fruit and a hint of sulphur. The palate is extremely tart with bitter hops, burnt fruit and roasted malt. The long, bittersweet finish has sultana fruit, bitter hops and roast. Fuller's Vintage Ale 2002 This vintage commemorated the Golden Jubilee and was brewed with Golden Promise malting barley and Goldings hops. There is a powerful grainy, Weetabix nose balanced by peppery hops. The Goldings and the house yeast give a big burst of orange fruit in the mouth balanced by rich malt and hop resins. The finish is dry with oranges, a hint of butterscotch, and spicy and bitter hops. Fuller's Vintage Ale 2003 Massive aroma of creamy malt and Grand Marnier fruitiness. Tart, mouth-puckering fruit in the mouth while bitter and resinous hops break through. The finish is tart and tangy with a big creamy malt note, spicy hops and tangy cherry fruit. Fuller's Vintage Ale 2004 Spicy hops, biscuity malt and orange fruit on the nose. Bitter hops, tart fruit and juicy malt in the mouth with a big orange fruit note in the finish with ripe malt and peppery hops. Fuller's Vintage Ale 2005 Creamy malt, sultana fruit and spicy hops on the aroma. Spicy hop resins come through strongly in the mouth with creamy malt and burnt fruit. Bitter, tangy hops in the finish are balanced by raisin and sultana fruit and ripe malt. Fuller's Vintage Ale 2006 Massive hop resins and spices on the nose with tangy citrus fruit and biscuity malt. Tart fruit, hops resins and sappy malt dominate the palate followed by a bittersweet finish with tart fruit, hop resins and rich malt. Fuller's Vintage Ale 2007 Brewed with Maris Otter pale malt, Fuggles, Goldings and Target hops. Orange fruit, big hop resins and biscuity malt on the nose. The palate is clean and quenching, very hoppy with resins and spices, juicy malt and marmalade fruit. A long and complex finish of rich fruit, sappy malt and peppery hops.

Whilst at Fuller's I also had a chance to sample a few more fascinating beers. A special bottled edition of Fuller's ESB at 6.3% was brewed in 2005 to mark the 160th anniversary of the brewery, with pale and crystal malts and double the usual rate of hops. Challenger, Northdown and Target were used in the copper, with Goldings added in the conditioning tank. The beer was matured for two years before bottling. It has a massive nose of sultanas, raisins and marzipan, with ripe fruit, biscuity malt and hop resins in the mouth. The finish is long with iodine, marzipan, burnt fruit and tangy hops.

I then had the chance to taste what may be the final edition of Gale's Prize Old Ale (9%), the Hampshire brewery bought and closed by Fuller's.

2,000 cases have been produced, mainly for export to Denmark and the United States; the remainder is available from the brewery shop at 2.40 a bottle. It was brewed from Maris Otter pale malt, with crystal and black malts, and Challenger, Fuggles and Goldings hops. It was brewed at Gale's in unlined wooden fermenting vessels and matured at Fuller's for 18 months.

The beer, in crown cap bottles - Gale's used driven corks - has a stunning nose of rhubarb and custard, hop resins and a sour, lactic note. It is sour and tart in the mouth with bitter hop notes developing. The finish is long, deep, sour, fruity and bitter.

And finally... Fuller's have reported a double-digit growth in sales of the 3.5% Chiswick Bitter following a revamp of the beer. It had been slow to "drop bright" in pub cellars and as a result the brewing team changed the hop regime of Challenger, Goldings, Northdown and Target varieties. Hops are now added during the copper boil, late in the boil, in the fermenter and maturation tank. The beer is also dry hopped in cask. The beer now drop bright within 24 hours of being tapped in the pub cellar.