Fuller’s Vintage Ale – A Tasting

Being a denizen of West London it’s difficult not be exposed to Fuller’s beer. Luckily, I’ve been a big fan even before my gradual western movement through the boroughs of London hit Chiswick, and my years of living fairly near the brewery have been rather convenient for finding numerous good pints of London Pride. However, on top of their rather good draft beer Fuller’s also do some rather special bottled beers, with the king of the bunch being their Vintage Ale. Not named for its oldness, but instead for the fact that the recipe changes each year and it’s designed to be kept for a while before being drunk. I’ve had the odd bottle in the past with mixed results, but drinking buddy Bob decided recently that his collection needed to be consumed to make room on his To Read shelf for more books. I approve of this action not only due to the acquisition of new books but also because he asked me along to write a poncey review of the beers.

Vintage Ales

We started off with the 2008, with a plan of jumping back a few years at a time to both get some comparison and not be too drunk by the time we got to the 1999. It smelled of Vintage Ale – there’s a common smell to all of the vintage ales that I’ve tried, I call it prickly, Kake calls it metallic, and this had it in spades. Along with the mysterious smell (which isn’t unpleasant, just distinctive and hard to describe) it had some fruit and caramel, as you’d expect from a strong ale. It tasted quite nice, thick in the mouth and with a nice malty flavour hiding some of the alcohol and leading to an almost ashy finish. One that I’d happily drink and the best of the Vintage Ales I’d tasted until this point (although I suspect my ones may have turned after years of less than careful storage).

We moved on to the 2003, skipping back 5 years. This one was quite different, with no prickle/metallic note on the nose, replacing that smell with raisins and molasses – almost like a sticky toffee pudding. It was very smooth, with very little fizz and a very rich caramel sweetness. Really very nice indeed.

Next was the 1999, the earliest of Bob’s collection, even if he hasn’t had it for 11 years. This was quite lively, trying rather lackadaisacally to escape the bottle on its own after opening. It had a much thinner, more wine-like smell and was in general not as thick and rich a beer as the others we’d tried. It had the traditional malt, but also some winey fruits and a slab of bitterness. Interesting, but not my favourite.

We then started back through time with the 2000. This one had a strong smell of tobacco, with Martin reckoning that there was a hint of the greenness of green capsicum. Other than that it was similar to the first, but with more sweetness, less prickle, a touch of tobacco and a burst of fizziness.

Next was the 2001. Again there was a slab of tobacco on the nose, but this time it was accompanied by some raisins and a winey smell. To taste there was fruit leather and a rich caramel sweetness finished with a buttery mouth feel. Big and fruity and probably my favourite.

The final vintage was 2007. This one was rather fizzy and escaped the bottle in quite an effective manner. It was also quite definitely young – the mellowed flavours of the last 4 beers were replaced by a much more up front complexity. There was the ‘prickle’ as well as spiciness, caramel sweetness and a touch of smoke. In a couple of years this might be a rather excellent beer – the smoke will hopefully turn into something a bit like the leatheriness of the 2000 and 2001, and this might be the one to grab and lay down for a couple of years.

Golden PrideTo finish off the tasting of Bob’s beer (as I also dragged along a bottle of Gales Prize Old Ale and some Old Engine Oil that may appear on here at a later date) he rolled out one of his ‘ready’ bottles of Golden Pride, the Fuller’s barley wine. Years back there was an interview with the chairman of Fuller’s, who seemed to be a bit of a mad old chap, who recommended that you kept your Golden Pride for at least 2 years past its sell by date to make sure that it was ‘ready’ (he had a ready supply and had one as nightcap each evening). The bottle that Bob put before us was 2.5 years past the sell by date and thus in need of drinking. Unsurprisingly it tasted very much of Golden Pride, with heavy malty caramel and spicy fruit, but the harshness of a newer bottle had been rounded off, leaving something rather too easy to drink. It’s definitely worth planning ahead and hiding bottles of this for later consumption. Unfortunately my method of achieving this is buying two at a time and hiding one, which is a dangerous course of action as a bottle of Golden Pride can happily end an evening shortly after it’s been opened, no matter how early it is.

Anyway, it looks like it’s time for me to start preparing for my turn to put on a similar event – first I need a case of the 2007 and then I need to book up an evening sometime in 2017…

Fuller’s Vintage Ale 1999, 8.5%
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2000, 8.5%
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2001, 8.5%
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2003, 8.5%
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2007, 8.5%
Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2008, 8.5%
Most easily available from the brewery shop, although the older ones are less likely to still be available

Fuller’s Golden Pride, 8.5%
Available from all Fuller’s pubs in bottle, occasionally on tap (at Christmas in selected pubs) and from lots of off-licenses.