Mixing Fuller’s porter

I like most of the beers produced by Fuller Smith & Turner, my nearest big brewer, but I’ve never got on with their London Porter. I know, from recent comments on Stonch’s blog that it has some big fans, but I’m not one. Too sweet, too often: not just too sweet for the style (though I’d believe someone who told me it’s from an authentic recipe: there are hints porter became quite a sweet beer in the 20th century) but too sweet per se.

Some sweet beers can work very well: Cain’s, for example, produced a Bonfire Night beer a few years ago that was hugely caramelly and quite delicious. But sweetness in beer needs careful balancing, and to me Fuller’s porter, certainly when new, doesn’t have the balance. And I don’t like that much chocolate front and centre, either.

Give it a little time in cask and it gets better: I went into the Fuller’s pub close to the Tower of London, the Hung Drawn and Quartered, early in November, when the London Porter arrived, and confirmed to myself, as I sat surrounded by homeward-bound bankers, that it was just as sweet as I remembered it. However, on a return visit last week the sweetness had died down and a pleasing hint of tartness was coming through. All the same, it still fell far short of knocking me out.

My visit was actually to see what the London Porter tasted like as a mixed drink. Despite what you will read elsewhere, porter itself was not born as a mixed beer. However, way back in the 1830s it was common to mix ale (pale, strong and “mild”, that is, unaged and quite sweet) with porter as a “half and half”. I wondered what a “half and half” of porter with other Fuller’s beers might be like.

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Reasons to be a cheerful beer drinker, part 16645

Fullers Brewers Reserve

Fuller's Brewer's Reserve

There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker: and I’d like to submit as just one plank in the platform that supports this claim Fuller’s new Brewer’s Reserve, its 7.7 per cent abv whisky cask–aged ale.

Why is this the best time to be a beer drinker ever? Isn’t the dominance of mass- produced, lowest common denominator lagers and “extra cold” (that is, even less taste than normal) beers, the continuing decline in the number of old-established family brewers, ever-higher beer taxes, the ludicrous war on normal drinking under the pretext of attacking “bingers”, and the closure of a horrifying number of pubs every week enough to make this a deeply depressing time to be a beer drinker?

Well, that’s the bad news. But the real story, I believe, is the Everest of enthusiasm that exists among brewers in pursuing quality, exciting beer experiences, which is reflected in more innovation, more experimentation, more excitement in the brewing industry, even in comparatively conservative Britain, in the past five, ten, 20 years than in any comparative period, ever.

When the Campaign for Real Ale started 37 years ago, British beer consisted of bitter, mild, a few old ales and barley wines, a few brown ales and stouts, and the first, weak, imitation lagers. Since then we have seen the revival of porter, in increasingly authentic forms, the return of specialist stouts, the return of odd historic brews such as heather ale, and fruit ales, proper wheat beers, the broadening out of lager brewing in Britain to take in authentic Continental styles, the invention of an entirely new category in golden ales, and now the arrival of another previously unseen style, cask-aged beers.

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Watch out for Fuller’s whisky beer

Some time in the next couple of months or so, when things get a little quieter for the summer, Fuller’s brewery at Chiswick in West London is going to be brewing its own version of Gale’s Prize Old Ale for the first time.

The current version, reviewed enthusiastically here, was brewed at Gale’s brewery just before it closed in 2006, then shipped to Chiswick for maturing, before being primed and bottled late last year and released in the spring.

It’s a deliciously sour-sweet dark Old Ale, 9 per cent alcohol by volume, in a style that almost disappeared, and I am delighted John Keeling, Fuller’s director of brewing, is continuing to make it available for future years.

John has solved the problem of reproducing the microflora and fauna found at Gale’s Horndean, Hampshire home, which gave the beer much of its particular flavours, by saving 40 hectolitres of the Gale’s-brewed POA to add to the maturing Fuller’s POA. The beer will be kept in tanks for 12 months, then bottled and released some time around October 2009 – with 40 hectolitres again held back for priming the next batch …

Meanwhile Fuller’s is also due to finally release its whisky beer some time in the coming month. I spoke about the problems Fuller’s had with HM Revenue and Customs over trying to sell a beer that has matured in former whisky casks here _ funnily, Scots brewers don’t seem to have the same difficulty in getting permission to do the same thing.

The problem is that whisky leaches out of the cask into the beer, raising its alcohol level. However, John Keeling says, the brewery has found that if it releases the whisky cask-matured beer at a lower ABV than the beer was when it originally went into the casks – water it down, in other words – then the brewery can put it on sale.

Golden Pride, 8.5 per cent abv, was the beer that went into the casks, so Fuller’s will be selling its whisky beer at 7.5 per cent, the taxman will be happy and so, I am sure, will the customers be: I see that when I tried Golden Pride matured in ex-Glenmorangie casks at the Thornbridge brewery seminar on wood-aged beers last October I described it as

indisputably changed by its experience, with an oaky sweetness, and citrus and orange more noticeable than in the “straight” beer, it would make a good “after dinner” winder-down.”

Bring it on.

The sixth-best beer writer in Britain …

Big cheers to Alastair Gilmour, who has now pulled off the unique feat of winning four Beer Writer of the Year gold tankards at the Zythographers’ Union annual awards bash in London – nice man, fine writer.

This does mean, however, that the UK’s top beer writing trophy has been won by only 10 different people in its 20 years of existence, with just three – Alastair (four times), the late and much missed Michael Jackson (three times) and Roger Protz (three times) – sharing half the gold tankards between them.

Indeed, while nearly 70 different people have won awards at the BWOTY bashes over the two decades since it started, the table below (based on five points for being BWOTY, three for a silver/category winner, one for a runner up and two points for the Budvar trophy) shows how much the big guns have dominated.

Alastair’s two gold tankard wins in the past three years have catapulted him out of the pack and in sight of the leaders, but Protzie and Jacko are still comfortably in front and uncatchable for at least a couple of years, given that, as this year’s gold tankard winner, Alastair will be chairing the judges for 2008’s awards and thus ineligible to enter.

BWOTY league table 1988-2007

1 Michael Jackson 29 points
2 Roger Protz 27 points
3 Alastair Gilmour 23 points
4 Allan McLean 16 points
5 Brian Glover 15 points
6= Martyn Cornell 10 points
6= Andrew Jefford 10 points
6= Ben McFarland 10 points
6= Barrie Pepper 10 points
10= Arthur Taylor 8 points
10= Jeff Evans 8 points

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Come-back for the Burtons

One of the particularly interesting facts to emerge from the papers prepared for last week’s BGBW seminar on wood-aged beers was that Greene King has been giving everyone, including our leading beer writers entirely the wrong tale about the name of BPA, the beer that is blended with two-year-old 5X to make Strong Suffolk.

The initials BPA do not, in fact, stand for Best Pale Ale, as writers from Michael Jackson to Roger Protz have been misled by the brewery into saying. They stand for Burton Pale Ale – and if you read the recipe for BPA, which included dark sugars and crystal malt, this makes perfect sense.

The trouble is that nobody today can remember what Burton Pale Ale used to be, and everybody now thinks it’s a synonym for India Pale Ale. It isn’t, at all – they are two totally different beers, in colour and flavour, and united only in being associated with the same brewing town.

Burton Pale Ale, also known as Burton Ale is the original dark, rather sweet beer the brewers of Burton upon Trent made and exported to Russia before they started brewing even paler, bitterer India Pale Ales in the 1820s.

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The woodbegoods

There’s an odd feeling, like you’re doing something slightly illegal, when drinking and discussion beers that would have been poured down the drain by every generation of brewers before this one for being irredeemably faulty. But 21st century brewmasters have discovered the flavour found in wood, and declared it good.

Unlike wine-makers, especially many white wine makers, and distillers, especially whisk(e)y distillers, brewers who have used wooden fermenting vessels and wooden casks always made it an axiom not to have any influence from the wood apparent in their beers. Wood flavours were fine in chardonnay, or scotch, but not in IPA or porter.

Oak for casks, vats and brewing vessels was sourced from places such as Russia and Poland that were known for growing wood that would not impart any flavours to the beer. Casks were lined with “brewer’s pitch”, vats were scrubbed down so that when stock ales, porters and stouts were being matured in them, no tang of the timber would come through into the beer. Once fermenting vessels began being lined with metal, and steel and aluminium casks came in, wood flavours disappeared as a worry.

The introduction of wood flavours as a desirable characteristic, in the UK at least, was a serendipitous discovery springing from the wish of the Scotch whisky distiller William Grant in 2002 to add to its range of “cask reserve” whiskies, all finished off in casks that had previously held other alcoholic drinks, such as sherry or rum. Grant’s wanted a beer to fill casks with and enable it to make “ale cask reserve” whisky once the beer had been emptied out.

Dougal Sharp, then of the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, designed a malty, estery, sweet, not very hoppy beer he and Grant’s felt would give the casks a good foundation for maturing whisky in. The beer was aways meant to be thrown away once it had been in the casks long enough to impart flavour to the wood that could be absorbed subsequently by the whisky. But workers at Grant’s distillery sampled the beer, and liked the oaky, vanilla flavours it had picked up from the new wood so much that instead of disposing of it they started taking it home …

Intrigued, Sharp tried putting the beer into a blind tasting at the brewery, where it scored a consistent nine out of nine with the tasters. The “tweaked” version of their original brew for Grant’s that Dougal and his father Russell launched in 2003 as Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer has been so successful subsequently it has effectively launched a completely new category in the UK marketplace – wood-aged beer.

Which is why I was at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday for the Zythographers’ Union’s latest seminar, tasting different styles of beers aged in different ways in different types of cask, and listening to Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery, John Keeling of Fuller’s in London and Dougal Sharp himself talk about their wood-aged beer experiments and experiences.

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