They say…

Des de Moor
Best beer and travel writing award 2015, 2011 -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
Accredited Beer Sommelier
Writer of "Probably the best book about beer in London" - Londonist
"A necessity if you're a beer geek travelling to London town" - Beer Advocate
"A joy to read" - Roger Protz
"Very authoritative" - Tim Webb.
"One of the top beer writers in the UK" - Mark Dredge.
"A beer guru" - Popbitch.
Des de Moor


Fuller's Vintage Ale 1999, 2005 and 2009

Note this post has been superceded. It has been left here for archival reasons. Read a more complete and up-to-date post about this beer.

CAMRA North tasting 2010

ABV: 8%
Origin: Chiswick, London, England

Note: tasting notes on further vintages can be found after the main article.

Fuller's Vintage Ale 1999

My favourite beer event of 2009 took place in the historic Hock Cellar at Fuller’s brewery, London’s last surviving classic family brewery and an icon of English ale. In early December, members of the Fuller’s Fine Ale Club gathered with brewery managers and staff and a smattering of beer writers to celebrate that club’s 10th anniversary with a special tutored tasting. Our host was head brewer John Keeling, a man whose world class skills with malt, hops and yeast, encyclopaedic knowledge and good taste are almost matched by his ability to deliver an informative and entertaining presentation brimming with obvious enthusiasm for his products. John is clearly a man who could have successfully followed a whole range of careers — people who care about beer should be glad he chose brewing.

John has a fascination for the process of maturation and ageing, and took that as his theme for the evening, beginning with the relatively short but vital maturation Fuller’s famous cask beers undergo at the brewery and in the pub cellar. We then moved on to explore the portfolio of strong bottle conditioned beers the brewery has built over the last couple of decades, including Prize Old Ale, inherited from the takeover of George Gale, and the recently launched Brewer’s Reserve matured in malt whisky casks. The grand finale was a succession of three examples of Vintage Ale, the bottle conditioned barley wine Fuller’s has been issuing annually since 1997.

Essentially Vintage Ale is a version of Golden Pride, the brewery’s regular filtered barley wine, though each year there’s a slightly different recipe, so this wasn’t a strict parallel tasting of the “same” beer at different ages. But it was still a superb demonstration of the potential of bottle ageing, and a reaffirmation that in Vintage Ale John has come up with one of the world’s best beers.

The new 2009 version was an amber beer with a big foamy yellow-orange head, a slightly phenolic smooth malty aroma with a biscuity note, and a zesty fruit sherbet palate with savoury malt flavours and that spicy orange note that’s part of the house character. A warming smoothly malty finish began with orange flavoured foam from the high condition and settled into mouth coating fruit, hops and nuts. A fine beer packed with vivid flavours, but perhaps still too fresh and bright.

The 2005 version came next and demonstrated what a difference four years can make to a beer of this type, as evidenced by the vocalisations that filled the room once glasses had been lifted to noses and lips. This one was also amber, brewed with floor malted Optic pale barley malt and a single hop, Fuggles, and though still lively it poured with a much less bubbly and energetic head. The aroma was still full of fruit but had taken on a mature woody pencil lead note and had more complex spicing. Also gaining in complexity was the palate, with fruity berry and orange flavours, sherry and that note of “madeirised” oxidation often found in aged beers (and mature red Bordeaux-type wines) that always tastes minty to me. A lovely sappy mouth-coating finish followed, with cream, oranges, nuts and a light roast touch.

Finally the decade-old 1999 version emerged, exhibiting some of the characteristics John mentioned when covering the effects of ageing, such as a thinning body, mellowing hops and darkening colours. Again this had been a pure pale malt beer (Champion Optic) but was now a nut brown, with only the smidgen of a head and a very complex port-like aroma rich in malt and fruit cake notes. The Chamption Fuggles hops that had gone into the beer was notably less pronounced. The palate had lots to say, with orange, cherries, mellow red wine, mint and meaty flavours and a sweeter effect than its predecessors. That spiced orange was back in the finish, though mellowed, with gritty slightly roasty notes and mildly bitter wash, and all sorts of intriguing retronasal hints.

The oldest beer was extraordinary, and got the majority vote when John called for a show of hands. Only one or two hands were raised in support of the 2009 as the best of the three. Myself, on balance I enjoyed the 2005 the most, but I’ll remain grateful I had the chance to try all of them.

Further vintages:

A case of mature Vintage Ale 2004 generously provided by the brewery turned out to be the majority favourite beer at the bottled beer tasting I hosted for North London CAMRA in February 2010. That particular beer, made to a very simple recipe of Maris Otter pale malt and Goldings hops, was more widely available than some vintages have been, and I’ve tasted it at different stages of maturation.

Drunk young in January 2005, the beer was a lively copper-amber with a yellowish head and a rich, hoppy and complex aroma with seeds, burnt wood, nail varnish and yeast. A creamily malty and fruity palate had nutty hops, almond toffee flavours, orange marmalade and a touch of meatiness. A sharply fruity swallow was followed by a hoppy citrus pith finish that turned winy and warming.

That summer a rare cask version turned up at the Catford Beer Festival – I found this a rich, if slightly cloudy, brownish amber, with a bubbly persistent white head and a complex strawberry and banana toffee aroma with a touch of liquorice. There was more strawberry on a salty, oily palate with marmalade and varnish notes and emerging hops. A sweet swallow led to a firm and warming finish with complex tongue-drying hops.

In December 2006 I noted that bottle 37209 poured a rich reddish-amber, with a smooth, nutmeggy head and a very rich and complex petrol, fruit and new leather aroma. A gum-tingling fruiy malt palate was chewy with intense orange flavours, cake, mint and jammy fruit. A cleansing swallow introduced a long and warming tangerine peel finish that ended very dry with late tongue puckering hops.

Tasting bottle 04560 from the beer tasting batch in March 2010, I noted how dark a shade of ruby the beer had become, with a thick and fine slightly orange tinged head. The aroma was intoxicating, with orange, apricot and raisin fruit, mature port and cream. A full but quite dry and woody madeirised fruit palate yielded complex spices and notes of chewy hops, turning quite woody and slightly tannic. Raisin fruit and bitter herbs emerged on a warming, tingling finish with nuttiness in the back of the mouth, some olive flavours and a slightly pursing woody note. I’d hazard the 2004 overall is a little less complex and a bit sterner than some other years, especially as its fruity intensity seems to be mellowing with age, but still, what a treat.

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