When Fuller’s announced in 2005 that it was acquiring Gale’s of Horndean, I couldn’t get very upset, in large part because I was angry at what Prize Old Ale had been allowed to become.
This should have been a proud and heavily promoted flag-carrier for British beer, about the last survivor of the “strong old ale” type made by almost every brewery in the country in the 19th century, still bottle-conditioned at a stomping nine per cent alcohol by volume and still, amazingly, available in corked bottles.
By the beginning of the 21st century, however, there was something very wrong: when you opened the bottles the ale inside was utterly flat, showing no condition at all, and the flavour was one-dimensional and over-sweet. Gale’s apparently bottled Prize Old Ale without adding extra priming sugar or yeast, relying on the yeast cells still in the beer, and the unfermented sugars that remained after the primary fermentation, to bring it into condition. Obviously, whatever the yeast used to do in the bottle in the past, it wasn’t up to the job any more. But nobody at Gale’s seemed to care, and what should have been a triumph was a disaster and an embarrassment.
The news that one last brewing of Prize Old Ale had taken place at the Gale’s brewery in Horndean just before it closed in March 2006, and the fermented beer had then been trucked up to Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick for maturing, gave me a little hope. At Horndean the beer was apparently matured for six to 12 months. Fuller’s looks to have taken at least 19 months: the last Horndean Prize Old Ale was only bottled in December last year, given the three months that Fuller’s likes to give its bottle-conditioned ales before it puts them on sale (believing they take that long to settle down after bottling), and they were released to the public in March.
The prime market looks to be the United States, since the labels are American – 500ml becomes “1pt 0.9 fl oz”, the Surgeon General gives his warning, and so on – and the only way you can get the beer in the UK is as a member of Fuller’s Fine Ale Club or directly from the brewery shop. Hurrah, I live about 15 minutes’ drive from Chiswick, so picking up a case was easy. But would it be worth buying?
The first fear – that the beer would once again be flat as pondwater – disappeared when the cap came off with a healthy “chffff”. There was very little head as the beer was poured, and what there was disappeared quickly, but a curtain of bubbles on the sides of the glass revealed that the Fullers-matured version of Prize Old Ale had plenty of condition. So that problem was solved, at least.
The colour was the expected dark oak, with hints of red, and the mouthfeel was certainly sharp, at first a shade too carbonated. The nose was almost grapey, with tar and treacle as well. First impressions found traces of apple and maybe mint, a touch of caramel from, I suspect, a long boil, rather than anything in the malt, and a sourness in the background that sets off very well the surviving slightly honeyed sweetness. Despite the dark colour, there are none of the up-front chocolate, coffee or roast malt flavours you would get in a member of the porter/stout family – this is a proper “old ale” of the sort your great-great grandfather would have known, a full-bodied ale of the kind almost nobody brews any more.
The grain bill, according to Roger Protz’s 300 Beers … is pale Maris Otter and black malt, this latter, having a “sweet or acrid flavour”, Hough, Briggs and Stevens’s Malting and Brewing Science says, and pushing the colour to 90 units, plus around 10 per cent brewing sugar. Hops, says Protzie, are Worcester Fuggles and East Kent Goldings, in quantities enough to give 53 units of bitterness, although there’s no great hop bitterness comes forward in the matured beer, at least not to my palate.
Roger says the beer was first brewed by Gale’s in the 1920s when a new head brewer brought the recipe from Yorkshire, which would put it in the tradition of the XXXXX Stingo Dr Keith Thomas of the University of Sunderland found in the brewing records of Hammond’s brewery in Bradford dating from 1903, using 82 per cent pale malt and 18 per cent glucose, with the wort boiled for three hours to concentrate it and give it more colour, an OG of 1100 and an ABV of 9.5. per cent.
My impression was that the Fuller’s-matured Prize Old Ale still needed a while in the bottle to calm down and be a fully integrated beer. But the more I drank, the more I got out of it. I had worried that a pint (or 500ml) was too much, but by the end, even at 9 per cent abv, I was thinking that one bottle might not be enough. It doesn’t come across as over-strong, but a full, upstanding ale packed with interesting flavours and subtleties, enormously appealing on its own, but also a beer that would be tremendously versatile at the dining table.
Prize Old Ale, because of how it is made and what it is made from, with its sweet-sour flavours and hints of tastes you cannot get from grapes, does the job wine can’t do. You could have it with traditional English dishes from roast beef and roast pork to lamb steaks (exactly the yeoman food, I am sure, it and its fellow strong ales were first brewed to go with – it would be just tremendous with mutton), you could have it with fish, with creamy Southern European food, with spiced Eastern dishes, with desserts from heavyweight puddings to fruit fools to ice cream, and with almost any cheese, and that sweet-sour-malty body, with its manifold subtle flavours tucked away inside, would uphold and enhance whatever you were pairing it with.
Fuller’s Fine Ale Club magazine suggests Prize Old Ale is “very similar to a Belgian Lambic beer”, which is code, I think, for “ooer, you might not like this”, and wrong both in how they are brewed and the final result: Lambic, deliberately exposed to as much wild yeast as its brewers can encourage, is much more sour, Prize Old Ale’s sourness, after its time maturing in the microbiological climate of West London, rather than west of Brussels, is subtler, less in-your-face.
It’s joyous to discover that Prize Old Ale can be such a great beer when properly looked after. I look forward to seeing how the last Gale’s-brewed beer develops over the years – Michael Jackson, who gave the OG for Prize Old Ale as 1094, suggested five or six years’ ageing brings out a brandy or Calvados smoothness, and one Gale’s brewer apparently believed 20 years’ ageing was merely an optimum. Over that time the alcohol content will certainly increase, though not to the “12 per cent or even more” Jackson suggests, I suspect.
The cash-flow problems involved in storing a beer for a couple of years before it can go on sale must put Fuller’s accountants in need of a strong drink, although at least excise duty no longer has to be paid as soon as the brewing part is completed. I’s love to see Fuller’s brew some Prize Old Ale themselves, to continue its availability, now that the experiment of maturing the beer at Chiswick has ended so well.