London brewer Fuller’s has been producing its bottled conditioned Vintage Ale since 1997 when the brewer’s name on the bottle was Reg Drury and not John Keeling whose signature found itself on the bottle the year after.
Keeling’s name has been on all the Vintage ales since 1998 through to 2016 after which current head brewer Georgina Young became the third name to adorn this ongoing series.
Having accumulated various bottles over the years, including a rare 1997 (in a white box), it seemed about time to crack open a few vintages to see how they had aged and how their developments in the bottle could be compared against other vintages.
With a few friends, and the Great Northern Railway Tavern in North London as the host venue, nine bottles were opened (including two that had been contributed by fellow beer writer John Porter).
Vintage Ale 1997
With 20 years in the bottle and variable storage conditions (straddling three house moves) it would have been no surprise to find this beer a disappointment. But it was anything but and its original robust formula had clearly helped keep it in good nick.
There was a modest aroma on first exposure, with a bit of sherry-like qualities, which came through in the tasting. But it was very much at the creamier end of the sherry spectrum as sweetness came very much at the fore. Christmas pudding ale is the most obvious description to assign this beer.
Vintage Ale 1999
There were clear signs that this beer had gone over the edge. It had very little conditioning and was certainly lacking in body. Beyond the sweetness there were few discernible characteristics to appeal to the drinker.
Vintage Ale 2000
In contrast to the 1999 this beer had superb conditioning with its pert head that was retained throughout the tasting. The mouthfeel added greatly to its appeal as did the full fruity flavours that contributed to what remains a great beer after 18 years in the bottle.
Vintage Ale 2004
This vintage poured rather thin with little head retention but what it did have in its favour was some of the cherry notes that were picked up in the original tasting in 2004. Also pleasant in the mix and rounding out its character was some mild bitterness in the finish.
Vintage Ale 2011
This more recent vintage poured like a distinctly younger beer with a fresher look to the head. It also had a full bodied feel with some alcohol heat noticeable but these were well balanced with some hop characteristics from the Goldings, Organic First Gold and Soverign hops.
Vintage Ale 2012
The most recent vintage in the vertical tasting had a zesty freshness and its hops contributed to giving it an almost refreshing aspect. There are clearly many potential years ahead for this vintage as the beer has far from rounded out whereby the fruitier notes will mature and come to the fore.
To mix things up some other Fuller’s special limited editions were added to the tasting:
Brewer’s Reserve No.4 (365 days aged in oak Armagnac casks)
The Armagnac provided this beer with its over-riding characteristic that ran right through from the aroma to the finish. Rum and raisin notes were evident in the character in what is a very drinkable beer. The consensus at the tasting was that this one is worth seeking out.
Past Masters ‘XX Strong Ale’
The first beer brewed by Fuller’s in what remains on ongoing series where recipes from its archives are reprised. The conditioning was pretty good although the beer was rather thin to the taste. It did, surprisingly, retain some alcohol heat, which was very much the over-riding characteristic when this beer was first bottled.
Past Masters ‘Old Burton Extra’
The tasting finished on a highlight with this excellently condition beer that displayed great complexity. The malt showed through and set a solid backbone from where a perfectly balanced combination of sweet notes and moderate hop character was able to shine through in the taste and finish.
With many other bottles (from various breweries) ageing in the Beer Insider cellar there is the high likelihood that another tasting along similar lines will be held in the near future.
Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider