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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

Top Tastings 2009 / CAMRA North Tasting 2010 / beer tastings 2011 / (2001 vintage)

ABV: 8.5%
Origin: Chiswick, London W6, England

A run of Fuller's Vintage Ale poses for the camera, Hock Cellar, Fuller's Brewery, London W6, October 2011

Until the recent resurgence that took everyone by surprise, craft brewing in London seemed locked in a decades-long cycle of decline, and today only one brewery remains as a living link back to the glory days when the capital of the British Empire was also the beer capital of the world. That brewery is Fuller’s, a modest local independent at the dawn of contemporary beer connoisseurship back in the early 1970s. Back then it was ready to give up cask beer and go with the flow of the big brewers who were converting to keg, but thankfully it was persuaded to stick with tradition, and has grown from one of the revered names of the early days of CAMRA to one of the world’s best breweries. And its Vintage Ale, bottle conditioned with a remarkable propensity to mature and develop complexity in the bottle, is to my mind one of the world’s best beers.

Brewing on the site, wedged beneath the Thames and the busy A4 road at Chiswick in west London, is claimed to date back to a brewhouse in the gardens of Bedford House on Chiswick Mall in the 1650s. Thomas Mawson started the first commercial brewery there in 1701 and a Fuller first became involved in 1829. The founding date of 1845 shown on the brewery logo was when John Bird Fuller got together with Henry Smith and his brother in law John Turner to take over the site.

Fuller's Griffin Brewery, London W6

Descendants of the founding partners remain involved, including chairman Michael Turner and sales and personnel director Richard Fuller. Most of the red brick brewery buildings date from the 1870s but parts are older: the wisteria carpeting some of the walls may be the oldest in England, from a Chinese cutting planted in 1816. Perhaps the beer helped it flourish as another cutting from the same batch that went to Kew Gardens later died.

Although Fuller’s kept faith with cask, for decades it routinely filtered and pasteurised its bottled beers. Vintage Ale is part of the story of how that changed. In 1995, veteran head brewer Reg Drury was asked to develop a special beer to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the current company, and devised a recipe that, though it wasn’t a straightforward historical recreation, was intended to be something like the sort of beer the brewery would have produced in 1845.

According to the current head brewer John Keeling, Reg was keen to add extra authenticity by bottle conditioning this beer, which was later named simply 1845, but was nervous of infections, so the first batches were pasteurised before being reseeded with fresh yeast. He was disappointed that the pasteurisation robbed the beer of some character, and finally took the plunge in leaving this stage out. He found ensuring a vigorous secondary fermentation was the best protection for the beer, which proved a great success.

Two years later the marketing department, pleased by the performance of 1845, came up with the idea of an annual bottled special beer that used “champion” ingredients – the best available malt and hops from that year’s harvest. Reg decided to base this on the brewery’s well-reputed but pasteurised barley wine, Golden Pride, and again made it a bottle conditioned beer. As an annual release, Vintage Ale, as it was named, appeared in a dated bottle presented in an attractive card case.

When the debut 1997 version hit the shelves, no-one at the brewery imagined that they’d still be drinking the beer 15 years later. They just assumed it would sell out over the year and then be replaced by next year’s model. But as the years passed both brewery staff and canny beer connoisseurs starting tasting older versions, and realised something remarkable was going on.

I’ve written about Vintage Ale before on this blog as it’s cropped up at tastings I’ve attended or hosted, or as I’ve sampled my own supplies. But in October 2011 I had the opportunity to attend a remarkable event hosted by John Keeling at the brewery. To celebrate the launch of 2011 Vintage Ale, John had lined up samples of all the previous vintages for a vertical tasting — almost certainly the last time such an event could happen as stocks of some of the vintages such as 1998 and 2002 are down to a few cases.

In his introduction John not only imparted some of the background recounted above but also talked about the way the beer evolves over the years. To the delight of those members of the audience who love poring over facts and figures, he handed out a fascinating table with a comparitive analysis of the various vintages on the day they were bottled and in September 2011. Of course the alcohol increases as the yeast gets to work on the residual sugars, while other chemical processes break down more complex sugars into simpler, fermentable ones that the yeast then attacks. But the increases aren’t huge and seem to fall back over time. The 2008, for example, was 8.47% ABV when bottled, and 9.12% on the more recent measurement. But the 1997, which went into the bottle at 8.67%, is now only 8.71%.

There’s a widespread assumption that the breakdown of sugars will make the beer drier over time, but that’s not the only thing that’s going on. Much more noticeable is the change in hop bitterness, which rapidly declines, dropping by about 25% in the first year or so and continuing to fall after that. The oldest beer for which an original bitterness level was recorded was the 2002, with 43 IBUs, now reduced to 25. But even the 2010 has gone down from 41.3 IBUs to 30.25 in a year. Condition — the amount of carbon dioxide in the beer — falls back too, and both these processes contribute to the older beers tasting sweeter and maltier rather than dryer than their more youthful siblings. The tables also show the count of live yeast cells dropping back, but by no means disappearing, so although fermentation slows with age, it doesn’t completely cease.

Vintage Ale isn’t the ideal beer for a vertical tasting as the brewery varies the recipe subtly every year — the first few were made with prizewinning barley and hops but this proved impossible to sustain so recent variations have been more down to the brewers’ imagination. Nonetheless there’s a remarkable thread running through pretty much all the beers, given a rich and varied twist by the effect of ageing. Most interestingly, the quality and complexity of the beers seems to peak and trough over time. Just past the middle of the age range, you start to wonder whether they’re now beginning to deteriorate, but older beers still have picked up magnificently. This is a phenomenon I’ve read about in connection with other beers capable of ageing, but the Fuller’s tasting demonstrated it in action.

Given this, I’ve thought it appropriate to weave in some of my previous Vintage Ale tasting articles and other unpublished tasting notes in the appropriate place below, alongside the notes from that amazing evening in October. Apologies — this is a very long post.


The youngest Vintage Ale, this includes Westminster and Tipple malts, some of them from organic barley grown by Sir James Fuller on the Neston Park Estate, with Goldings, Organic First Gold and Sovereign hops. Tasted on release in 2011, it was a rich orange-amber with an excellent foamy yellowish head. The yeasty, spicy aroma was almost Belgian in character, nutty and varnishy with a hint of liqueur. A burly orange malt palate was lightly bitter with chewy hops over firm cereal, biscuit and nuts. A fine and warming finish had late notes of smooth hops and a touch of marzipan and the overall impression made clear the close relationship with Golden Pride.

This was the first tasting of the evening and I marked it highly despite it being young, but having tasted all the versions back to 1997 I came back to it — compared to the old versions, it was fizzy and lacking in depth of flavour. It’s still worth drinking young, though, just a very different experience.


This year’s beer was brewed with Tipple malt and dosed with Goldings and Fuggles hops on the boil, then dry hopped with Goldings and Target before being bottled. Tasted in October 2011, it has a much richer and more mature aroma than the 2011, with some faint honeyed, musty notes, orange liqueur, marzipan and a slight note of thinners. The beer was luscious on the tongue with plenty of rich but dry orange biscuit and nuttiness, still with an overall sweetish impression. A very slightly sherryish finish had marzipan, a very faint flinty roast hint and late sultanas. Not as vivid as the younger beer, but not yet developing the really interesting flavours that came later.


One of the simplest Vintage Ale recipes, this one had East Anglian Tipple barley and a single hop, Kent Goldings. I first tried it a couple of months after release, at another event at Fuller’s hosted by John at which three of the beers in the series were sampled along with other Fuller’s brews. Here’s what I wrote about it on my blog in January 2010:

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 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.

Almost two years later at the same venue, I found the beer had a consistent amber colour with the previous versions, and was clearly much less carbonated than at the previous sampling. It had a sweet, very marzipan-tinged aroma mellowed out with honey cake notes and a very slight touch of pine. I wondered also if there was a hint of soy sauce or Marmite — the note you get from the process called autolysis which sometimes happens when yeast cells break down. The palate was smooth and rich with a piny character coming through, again leaving a sherry-like slick on the tongue. The orange and salty, savoury notes were still there but had clearly become more herbal and honeyed. A spicy orange liqueur finish balanced sweetness with dry nuttiness.


This was made from floor malted Maris Otter barley and Northdown and Challenger hops, and I’d also tasted it when young, thanks to some sample bottles supplied by the brewery. Back in December 2008 I found bottle number 35242 contained a bright orange-golden beer with a fine orange tinged head and an aroma of fruit sherbert, malt, spice and phenol with petally notes and barley sugar beneath. The palate was full and fruity, a bit like a dessert wine, but balanced with orange liqueur, spice and detergent notes. A warming bittersweet orange finish built a note of slightly medicinal hops. “A little sweet and lightweight but should mature very well,” I wrote in my notebook.

I was proved right when I revisited the beer at the vertical tasting: the 2008 was the best bottle we’d opened thus far. It was a lovely amber colour — it had probably darkened slightly with age — and threw a bubbly slightly yellowish head. A subtle, sweet, raisiny and yeasty aroma had cherry and, yes, marzipan notes. The palate had a piney, rooty dryness a little reminiscent of turmeric, but softened by honeyed notes, with herbs and a definite note of salt. A lovely orangey liqueur-like finish was sweet and lightly nutty, balanced out by subtle spices.


Fuller's Vintage Ale 2007

I’d bought this 10th anniversary edition, made from Maris Otter pale malt and Fuggles, Target and Super Styrian hops, from Sainsbury’s soon after it was released, but stashed it away and forgotten about it. I finally opened bottle 46623 in February 2010, and found a rich deep amber beer with a foamy orange cream head, a restrained spiced orange and peach aroma, and more orange and peach in the liqueur-like palate. Luxurious spices also danced in a rich, foamy and well-integrated beer with a long fruity and spicy finish. Notes of Cointreau gave way to a late mineral note.

Around 18 months later at the vertical tasting, this one looked notably darker than younger offerings, with the head still foamy but not so persistent, and a less pungent, more restrained aroma, fruity and sweet but also more malty and mellowed out. The beer was notably different in character than its predecessors, drier with the exotic spices I’d picked up on before still present. I also noted figs and raisins on the palate, and signs of ageing such as Marmite and a hint of oxidation. An interesting finish slicked the mouth with spicy, nutty flavours and an almost mastic-like piney note. No sign of the Cointreau.


I believe the vertical tasting was the only time I’ve tasted the 2006, which was made with Super Styrian hops. Once again this was darker, and with a notably less persistent head. The fruity aroma had a slight note of chlorine, soon smothered by rum and sultanas. A salty but also very complex palate was complex but rounded and surprisingly yeasty, with dried fruit, drying biscuit and orange again. The finish was lingering and dry as nutshells. “Really ineresting” read my notes.


This was one of two aged Vintage Ales featured by John at the 2009 event. Shortly afterwards, I wrote on this blog:

[The 2005 version] 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.

How was it faring almost two years later? Excellently, as it turned out. Notably drier than the younger beers, it was starting to lose its head retention. Fruity orange and rum notes on the aroma set up a slightly sweet and malty palate with lovely dry spicy flavours — savory (the herb), spiced orange, muscat and marzipan. A big orange warming finish lost some of the sweetness and developed a slightly stony quality — perhaps not quite as generous as the previous tasting had been. “Short and precise,” remarked John.


This year’s beer, made to a very simple recipe of Maris Otter pale malt and Goldings hops, seems to have been more widely available than some vintages have been, and I’ve had several opportunities to try it.

Once again I’d bought the beer at Sainsbury’s soon after it was released. Drunk young in January 2005, it 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.

In summer 2005 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 fruity 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.

The brewery generously provided a case of this vintage for a bottled beer tasting I hosted for North London CAMRA in February 2010, where it turned out to be the majority favourite. Tasting bottle 04560 from that batch, 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 wondered then if the 2004 overall is a little less complex and a bit sterner than some other years, especially as its fruity intensity seemed to be mellowing with age.

At the vertical tasting the beer still presented with an astonishing aroma, beautifully aged with rum, pine and notes of sulphur and marmite. The palate was gorgeously rich and sweetish with cherries, nuts and oranges, but also nicely spicy, with the carbonation dropping right off by now. A coating finish had lightly drying resins, spice, a little salt and lingering alcohol.


Inevitably with a process like this there will be the occasional disappointments. The 2003, with Maris Otter malt, Target, Challenger and Northdown hops, was another one I hadn’t had before, but the bottles the brewery had dug out turned out to be notably oxidised: “smelling like second hand shirts,” wrote Mark Dredge. I detected a papery, musty nose with a ground pepper note. The mustiness persisted on the palate, with salt and old books, cherry and a slightly watery quality. Spice, salt and a touch of malt showed on the finish, and the orange managed to fight its way through.

John insisted on trying some bottles from another case, which, though better, were still a little musty, and notably salty, with a nutty finish and a Christmas pudding note. This was undoubtedly the lowest scoring vintage of the evening and not in a top condition — but I’d have been happy to finish a bottle all the same.


This edition marked the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and, picking up on a golden theme, included Scottish Golden Promise malt and Goldings hops. I was sent a couple of bottles of it by the brewery at the time, the first one of which I sampled in December 2003 when it was just over a year old. I found a reddish-amber beer with a subsiding white head, an intense fruit salad aroma with a woody touch, and a sweetish, lively, fruity palate with toffee, pineapple sherbert and cherry. The finish was rounded and nutty, with figgy fruit, malt, hops, almonds and touch of alcohol — overall a refined beer.

I resisted cracking open the second bottle until January 2009. By now the beer was burgundy-chestnut in colour, with a light foamy slightly orange head and a rich, meaty dark fruit cake aroma with notes of madeira, mint and peach. Remarkably fresh orange jelly flavours emerged on a mellow, complex and oily palate with lightly bitter notes, more salty meat and peach flavours and spicy edges. A slick, slightly numbing orange liqueur finish was not as complex as I was expecting but the beer still impressed.

Fast forward almost three years and, in the context of its predecessors at the vertical tasting, especially the disappointing 2003, this beer stood out as one of the very best of the evening, and also as one of the most individual and distinctive vintages. It threw a remarkably good head for a near-decade old beer, with a very grainy aroma – the fruit had fallen back to leave a spicy rye note. There were also thick grainy notes on the palate, with some marmite, orange and even a touch of chocolate. Dry, salty and bitter flavours floated over rich, sweetish malt. A rummy but drying finish had a dark cakey note, with bitterish mellowed hops and nuts showing through. Even more refined than when I first tried it.


Following the 2002 at the vertical tasting, the 2001 proved to be another outstanding beer, originally made to a deliberately hypertraditional recipe. Again it had a healthy head, its foam even slightly overflowing the bottle neck, and a beautiful rich apricot and violet aroma with loads of peachy fruit and a touch of sulphur. A really unusual palate had notes of cheese, rose petals, rum, fruit cake, exotic fruit, dates and blackcurrant syrup. The alcohol was more evident on the finish than on many of the other vintages, though not excessively so – otherwise it remained petally with artichoke, minerals, and a touch of hops. It was complex, not too drying, and absolutely delicious.


In the millennium year, Vintage Ale went organic, with Champion Optic malt and organic Target hops. Sampled at the vertical tasting in 2011, this was another in a run of astonishing beers. Rich amber with a fine beige head, it boasted a touch of sherry and tobacco in a malty, nutty aroma. The palate was initially sweet, rich, thick and slightly piny, with vanilla, wood and marzipan notes, though seemed to thin as it swirled in the mouth. A lightly peppery finish was dominated by sweet marzipan, with late spicy mastic flavours. A very serious beer.


Fuller's Vintage Ale 1999

This was the last of three Vintage Ales made with the original “champion” theme in mind. Before the vertical tasting it was also the most mature example I’d ever tasted, as John had previously brought it out as the pièce de résistance at his earlier tasting in 2009. Shortly afterwards I’d written written on this blog:

Finally the decade-old 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 Champion Fuggles hops that had gone into the beer were 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.

At the vertical tasting I noted a deep amber beer with a thinning off-white head, and sulphur, farmyard and marmite hints dancing round a sweetish raisin fruit aroma. The beer was clearly thinned on the palate, but had something of the character of a fruity aged Burgundy, with a touch of Madeira thrown in – overall it was dry, nutty and very complex, with a peanut hint to the drying finish. It was doing a good job of retaining its excellence.


Now one of the very rarest Vintage Ales, this had Champion Alexis malt and Northdown hops. At the vertical tasting it was still lively despite its age, valiantly throwing up some foam. A sweetish, fruity and spirity aroma had sherry hints. The palate was lightly oxidised and certainly thinnish, but really complex and spicy, with nuts, pepper, and that salty tang showing through again. A tasty, characterful finish lingered with intriguing spicy notes.


Brewed in May 1997 and bottled the following July, this first Vintage Ale was well over 14 years old when opened at the vertical tasting, but it still had the energy to climb out of the bottle, with a slowly bubbling overflow of foam. In the glass it was rich amber, with a nicely off-white head. The aroma had strong Madeira notes with a touch of marmite and cherry fruit. A gorgeous nutty palate had hints of apricots, mushrooms, nuts, cracked pepper and, for one final time this evening, the persistent orange notes of Fuller’s yeast. A nutty, fruity finish lingered with a hint of mint. The thinness of age was evident, but the beer was amazingly still packed with flavour.

A bottle of this was included in the goody bag. I wonder if it will still be climbing out of the bottle at 20.

Read another view of the vertical tasting at Pencil & Spoon.

11 comments to Fuller’s Vintage Ale

  • Great write up, thanks Des. I’ll bookmark this for future reference when opening bottles. I was lucky enough to come across a 2002 in the box for takeaway in a pub recently, only £4.50. I have no idea about the storage conditions so it may be very poor but I think I’ll do a tasting with the ’02 and a more recent vintage.

  • Paul C

    I have to ask…..Fullers vintage is the best ale out there, but do I drink it from the fridge or at room temperature?

  • Des

    I’d suggest a little warmed up from the fridge, about 12-14°C. You’ll taste more of it that way. And of course it won’t age in the fridge.

  • Paul

    Thanks Des. Bought a crate of 2010 last year and will sup a bottle a year until its gone and the wife has got me a crate of mixed vintages for Xmas. At 2 quid a bottle direct from Fullers ’twas a steal. Can’t wait to get supping.

  • […] Fuller’s Vintage Ale, even this latest edition. Des de Moor has a fantastic article on his website from a recent vertical tasting of all the Vintage Ales. Definitely worth a read, especially if you’ve been storing bottles […]

  • Stephen Harris

    Thanks – a good work of reference.
    I was lucky enough to have been at the launch of the first (97) vintage at the Hock Cellar in October 1997. My memory was that the beer tasted very green, and we all hoped it might mature with age! I’ve still got the tasting glass from that evening and a couple of bottles each from the first four vintages, but disappointingly few from subsequent years. Might decide to drink them all in one go – a kind of ‘horizontal tasting’ I suspect.

  • Sam

    My wife and I took the ‘vintage’ brewery tour last Tuesday.

    First, the tour guide was top-notch. He knew the brewing process and was a true fan of Fuller’s. In the tasting room we followed a “light to dark” direction and finished with a double porter. However, the treat occured when we returned home with two bottles of 2005 Vintage. I have brewed my own beer and have been fortunate in life to visit many breweries – Guiness, Heineken, Olympia, Coors, Budweiser, Ranier, Celis, Red Hook, and Real Ale. Without exception, this was by far the finest brewed beer I have ever tasted. The only problem was that we only had two bottles. We have found a distribuor in NY to furnish Fuller’s vintage, and hopefully we’ll be back for another tour this summer. Fantastic people and beer – whatever you do, take pride!!!

  • Bob

    I have about 10 bottles of 2002 Queens Golden Jubilee Vintage all in presentation boxes in excellent condition,how would I value it as I am sure it must be worth a few £ a bottle now?

  • Neil

    I have a 1997 bottle of fullers vintage sealed and numbered 08974 been looked after very carefully any decent offers

  • Neil

    I have a bottle of fuller’s vintage ale 1997 sealed and numbered still in box and carefully looked after is it worth anything

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