Origin: Horndean, Hampshire, England
Gale’s Prize Old Ale is a real slice of British brewing heritage. Created by a Yorkshireman who worked at the company’s 1860s tower brewery in the early 20th century, it perpetuated an already declining technique in British brewing, the long ageing of strong ales which had once been a key component of porter production. When CAMRA was founded in 1971 it was one of the legendary five bottle conditioned beers still in production in the UK. Michael Jackson, in his 1993 Beer Companion, describes it as brewed in a Victorian cast iron mash tun and a copper dating from 1826, and matured for six to 12 months in glass lined cast iron tanks, before being bottled, unfiltered and unpasteurised, straight from the tank with no additional sugar or yeast, after which it can continue to mature for many years. One Gales brewer, he says, “argued that 20 years’ bottle-aging was an optimum, not a maximum.”
When Gales was bought and closed by Fuller’s in 2006, just before the final curtain the new owner farsightedly commissioned one final and specially large batch of Prize Old Ale, which was tanked to Chiswick for maturation. Some of it was then bottled and released as a 2007 vintage; some of the rest is still maturing and proportions of it are likely to appear in future Fuller’s releases of the beer. Fuller’s kindly sent me a review bottle of the 2007 which I managed to resist trying until it had at least a couple of years more of age.
The beer poured a dark red-brown with a very slight light brown head that soon subsided. Fruity, irony, cherry and chocolate aromas were reminiscent of sour Belgian ales like Rodenbach. The palate was complex, tangy and very fruity with a tasty malt body, sappy wood-like notes and big middle of chocolate and boiled sweets with a hint of hops. A lingering tangy finish yielded dates, olives, bitter herbs, nuts, vermouth and a well-balanced acidity.
That acidity, which certainly mellows but doesn’t disappear with age, has long been a noteworthy characteristic of the beer and makes me wonder about the glass lined tanks reported by Jackson, as it’s more characteristic of a wood matured beer. And indeed the 1993 account is contradicted by Fuller’s brewing director, John Keeling, who in an interview with Roger Protz says it was initially fermented in wood which was impossible to clean thoroughly, picking up the microorganisms that gave it its sourness, then matured in stainless steel tanks. Fuller’s marketing team regarded the 2007 as too aggressively sour, and had John brew a 2008 with only a small proportion of the Horndean beer, which rounds off the edges. But it’s still recognisably Prize Old Ale, now one of only two remaining of that historic 1970s five.
Read more about this beer at ratebeer.com: http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/gales-prize-old-ale/5996/