The birthdays that are generally regarded as landmarks are mostly the ones that end in a zero: 30, 40, 50 and on upwards every ten years. Many get deeply gloomy as the anniversary odometer clicks over another decade. But the most depressing, I think, are the “demographic milestones”, the birthdays that indicate you’ve gone into a different category as far as marketers and demographers are concerned: 25 to 34, 35 to 44, 45 to 54 and so on. Suddenly, in the middle of your forties, or whatever, you are ticking a new box on forms, re-categorised with people nearly 10 years older.
This month I have been demographically re-sorted, and shifted in with people who might be only days from retirement. Please! I still buy records by people like Amy Winehouse, Rufus Wainwright and the Arctic Monkeys – do I have to line up in the same cohort as 64-year-olds? OK, I would rather sit naked on broken glass than go to Glastonbury, but I’ve felt that since three days of enforced constipation at the Shepton Mallet rock and blues festival in 1970 when I was 18.
Still, another birthday is an excellent excuse to try out some of the old beers I have slumbering upstairs, and there are three that are themselves reaching significant anniversaries. One I was particularly keen to sample again was Whitbread Celebration Ale, brewed to mark the 250th anniversary, in 1992, of Samuel Whitbread becoming a brewer, and made at a whopping 1100.5 OG . It was brewed at the former Tennant Brothers’ Exchange brewery in Sheffield, which closed the following year. I bought 12 bottles when it came out, and tried the first bottle five years after, in 1997. The nose was fantastic – blackberries, raisins, a mass of fruity flavours. However, tasting the beer it was clearly still far too young, with immature “meaty” flavours, and over-sweet, from heavy sugars that had still not broken down. Another bottle five years later was also still too young, and so was one I tried two years ago, when it was 13 years old but it was getting there, so at 15 I thought the beer ought to be ripe by now, and I fetched one down from the attic.
Take off the pink paper wrapper, which shows this is bottle number 33500, and which says: “If you can stand the temptation we recommend that you store the beer for three or more years. It will continue to mature for up to 20 years or more.” Remove the red sealing wax to get at the cork – slight problem as the loop on the wire cage keeping the cork in place breaks, requiring pliers to get the cage off. The bottle is old-fashioned, the kind used a century ago and more for bottled beers, dark brown, almost black, embossed with the Whitbread hart’s head trademark and the words “Whitbread London.”
The cork comes out easily – it has Whitbread stamped on it, and staining running about two thirds of the way up. There’s a lovely aroma off the cork itself, slightly, but not unpleasantly vinegary, plums and raisins – beautiful. Sniffing the bottle it’s definitely changed from the last time I drank the beer, a much more mature, rounded aroma, and has lost the youthful, underdeveloped flavour it had before.
Pouring some out into a half-pint tulip beer glass, there’s absolutely no head whatsoever. Lovely complex nose, the first sip shows the beer is definitely ready to drink, just enough condition to lift the mouthfeel. It’s uncloying: indeed it tastes quite thin for a beer of its strength, which was 11.5 per cent ABV at bottling and has to have risen to closer to 12 per cent at 15 years, at least. But you can feel the alcohol aromas on the nose and there’s just the most amazingly long aftertaste, absolutely coats the tongue with flavour. A beautiful beer, no harshness whatsoever, still quite sweet, which the bitterness from what must have been a substantial amount of hops balances out underneath, to give a perfect structure. There’s so much going on, and the beer gets more complex as it opens up – a pepperiness is coming through from the hops, there’s mint, caramel, prunes, raisins and fruitcake. But it’s still quite young – now I’m further in there’s still a touch of slightly meaty character in there that you can have with young strong ales that suggests this beer has got some way to go yet in its maturation.
Next I tried was a 1997 Fuller’s Vintage Ale, the first one in the series, brewed by Fuller’s legendary head brewer Reg Drury, a bottle-conditioned beer based on the recipe for Fuller’s strong pale ale, Golden Pride, and made with Muntons, London and Simpsons malt, Target hops for bittering, Northdown and Challenger for aroma. I had completely forgotten I had a bottle of this, until it surfaced when I moved house in 2005, and I decided to leave it unopened until it was 10 years old. The back label says “best before end 2000”, a wild under-estimation, happily.
I last had this at the 10-year vertical tasting of Vintage Ale’s Fuller’s held at the brewery last September (where there were more zythographic superstars sitting down at the tables in the Hock Cellar than you could shake a mash rake at – I don’t suppose there have ever been as many winners of the British Guild of Beer Writers’ gold tankard in one room outside of the BGBW’s annual dinner). The 1997 was the last one we tasted, and general opinion agreed that while it was looking elderly it had held up remarkably well: my notes say: “hint of sourness, still smooth, sweet, full, rich, cherries”. I’m surprised, but, this one, which has been hanging around in various attics for the past 10 years as I have moved homes is actually better than the one last year from Fuller’s cellars. I doubt this is anything to do with how I kept it, and more, as John Keeling, Fuller’s current head brewer, says, that ageing beers go through ups and downs, and I have been lucky enough to catch this bottle on an “up”.
It’s a beautifully smooth beer, creamy, with a richly honeyed sweetness and again, cherries come through right away, Well-integrated hop flavours, give a slightly peppery bitterness; some orangey background, as well, hinting at a mixture of an orange liqueur and a cherry liqueur.- a lovely mouth-filling flavour, a medium-length aftertaste, a very satisfying, fine beer, lots of complexity,
Finally a 30-year-old Courage Russian Imperial Stout. This was brewed in 1977, year of punk rock, Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon, and the Queen’s (and my) silver jubilee, at Courage’s Anchor brewery in Horsleydown, by Tower Bridge in London, just down river from where the beer was first brewed, the “other” Anchor brewery, Barclay Perkins’s at Southwark, previously Thrale’s. The crown cork on this “nip” (6fl oz, 175ml) bottle actually carries the Barclay name, though with the Courage cockerel trademark. When I interviewed a brewer at the Horselydown brewery in around 1980 he revealed that the Imperial Russian was made as a parti-gyle with the Velvet Stout, taking the first run-off of the mash for the stronger beer. Alas, Horsleydown closed in 1982, and the beer was made at John Smith’s brewery in Tadcaster until 1993, after which it vanished.
The label on my 1977 bottle says “As brewed for 175 years”, but they’re being modest: even in 1977 the style was at least 180 years old. The artist Joseph Farington wrote in his diary for August 20 1796:
“I drank some Porter Mr Lindoe had from Thrale’s Brewhouse. He said it was specially brewed for the Empress of Russia and would keep seven years.”
Mr Lindoe was another under-estimater: this is just as drinkable as a beer only weeks old. Unlike previous Courage Russian Imperial Stouts I’ve had, which have tasted almost exactly like coffee liqueurs, there’s not so much coffee/chocolate flavour in this one, more overtones of Christmas pudding, lots of dried vine fruits in there – another very fine beer. So – three great beers, and a combined age of 55 years – same as me. Happy birthday, all