Daughter, Mrs Zythophile and I played a new game as we negotiated the M1 last week (or at least I did): spot other saloon cars laden to the roof with the finest Ikea supplies for fitting out a new undergraduate’s bedroom and kitchen. I won’t lie, I was slightly disappointed that Daughter did so well in her A levels she was able to spurn an offer from Liverpool University and flutter her eyelashes at York instead, which swiftly threw open the gates of the city. Sorry, Scousers: it’s not you, it’s us. I had many happy hours in the pubs of Merseyside when I was not that far out of studenthood myself. But the rest of the family were delighted that York was now the destination, and I could at least explore the pubs and bars of a city I’m ashamed to say, soft southern Jessie that I am, I hardly know.
First impressions were good, apart from all the bouncers on the doors at 3pm. What time does it usually kick off in Tykeland? In London we like to leave it until well after we’ve had our cocoa before we need the A&E. It’s desperately infra dig to lump anybody before 11pm, unless there’s a footie match in the vicinity.
Mind, I felt like lumping someone when I saw the pump clip pictured here, in an otherwise very pleasant and friendly craft beer bar in the middle of the city. It’s from Eye Brewing, based near Leeds, which claims to be “the UK’s first wheat brewery”, an assertion the white ale brewers of Devon and Cornwall in the 19th century and before would have forthrightly rejected, as would the monkish brewers at establishments such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where ale was being brewed on a considerable scale in the 13th century using wheat and oats, as well as barley.
Worse, of course, was the claim that the beer, sold under the name Kleiner Wasted, was a “session white IPA with tropical fruits”, which squeezes four oxymorons into just six words, surely a record. OK, I know “session IPA” is now supposed to be a thing, but the beer’s specs, according to Eye’s website, include an abv of 3.6 per cent and 30 EBUs. That’s both weaker and less bitter than Eye’s own “wheat best bitter” (35 EBUs) and well below the US norm for a “session IPA” (around 4.5 to five per cent abv).
If you haven’t bought your 2016 Fuller’s Vintage Ale yet, either to drink now, or to lay down for later, or to preserve as an investment (what with examples from the 1990s selling for up to £500 a bottle, and even the 2013 costing £40 a pop), tough tubas – there’s none left. Waitrose is totally sold out, so is the brewery shop. Luckily I had a hunch my local specialist, Noble Green in Hampton Hill, might have some, and I manage to snaffle their last five examples.
Fuller’s is being tight-lipped about why the 2016 is now impossible to find: there are rumours that something went terribly wrong with the packaging, but no one seems willing to say. It’s a great pity, because the 20th iteration of Vintage Ale since it was first brewed in 1997, is a lovely, lovely beer, already, at approaching a year old, deep and remarkable. This was the one with Nelson Sauvin as both a boil hop and an FV addition, the first time, I believe, that Fuller’s has used New Zealand hops in VA, and it works brilliantly: there’s limes coming through, and passionfruit, and mandarins, and a little bit of that Nelson Sauvin elderflower, all beautifully integrated over creamy toffee and deep brown malt sweetness, with just enough bitter (40 IBUs) to hold everything together. You’ll drink one bottle, and enjoy teasing out all the flavours so much you’ll want another one to continue the analytical fun, and then at the end of that one you’ll stand up and wobble slightly and realise you’ve just drunk a litre of 8.5 per cent ale.
How the 2016 will develop as it gains more age remains to be seen, but Fuller’s had a gathering in the Hock Cellar at the brewery a couple of weeks back to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vintage Ale with a tasting of ten different examples going back to 1999, and all are still very drinkable. John Keeling, Fuller’s brewing director, who helped the late Reg Drury brew the first Vintage Ale in 1997, conducted the tasting and revealed a few secrets about the beer. Vintage Ale was, he said, an idea first put forward by the marketing department at the brewery – “they do get a good idea every 40 years or so.” However, Fuller’s knew something like Vintage Ale was possible after bringing out 1845, a bottle-conditioned strong ale made originally to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Fuller, Smith and Turner partnership in 1995, and discovering that it actually tasted better at 12 months old than when it was new – “totally the opposite to every other beer at that time”.
A beer has to be specifically designed to age, Keeling said: “Most beers will not age properly.” After 20 years, Fuller’s now has considerable experience in how beers age, with the interplay of negative reactions – notably oxidation – and a whole series of generally more positive chemical changes, such as Maillard reactions between sugars and proteins, which happen at different speeds, while at the same time alpha acids are breaking down, reducing the perceived bitterness (and boosting the perceived sweetness) and adding extra complexity of flavour, the colour of the beer is darkening and “madeira” and “sherry” flavours start appearing, and eventually “cherry” flavours, which you can cerrtainly spot in the older Vas.. The different speeds that the “good” and “bad” reactions take place at gives a “cycle” to beer ageing, which explains why that bottle of 2013 VA may taste disappointing now, but one of its brothers will be terrific if left for another nine months – and a third bottle of the same brew will disappoint another nine months after that, which a fourth, left for longer yet, will again cheer and enchant as it comes back “on” … you can regard this lottery-like aspect of beer ageing as annoying or part of the fun, but it does mean you shouldn’t dump the whole batch just because one aged bottle is disappointing. It may be just at a poor spot in its cycle.
One important aspect of beer ageing is that temperature is important – and room temperature is the worst temperature to store beer at, Fullers has discovered. It appears the oxidation cycle at around 20C is happening too fast for the “good” cycles to compensate. Either keep the beer cool, or, counter-intuitively, keep it warm: with the warmer beer, the “good” reactions are speeded up more than the “bad” ones, so the oxidation is outpaced. (Doubtless this was the clue to the success of ship-borne India ales in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the oxidation of beer in the casks lagging behind all the Maillard reactions and so on made extra-fast by the warm Equatorial seawaters of the mid-Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.)
VA is always parti-gyled with London Pride, which raised a question: each year the recipe is altered slightly, with different hops and combinations of hops. Have Pride drinkers never noticed over the past two decades that every spring their beer tastes rather different, from the Fuggles and Target of 1999 to the all-Goldings of 2002 (that year’s VA was always a personal favourite, and it’s still wondrously smooth aged 15), the Goldings, Liberty and Cascade of 2014 and last year’s Nelson Sauvin, Goldings, Northdown and Challenger? I’d love to know if anyone has ever commented … see if you can spot the “Vintage Ale” gyle this year.
Brakspear’s Triple is a regular on the Zythophile shopping list: not just because I try to support old fermentation methods, it’s a very tasty beer, marvellously fruity, toffee apples, peardrops and bananas, hints of fruitcake, sweet and bitter in perfect balance, a long and lingering tart, very dry finish, and remarkably light-footed for a beer of 7.2 per cent abv. It ages to an interesting state as well: I tried an 18-month old version at the weekend, sour tartness was coming through much more, which I’m not certain is meant to be there, but it was very pleasing regardless.
The beer gets its name partly because it is hopped three times, and also, and more relevantly, because it undergoes, effectively, a triple fermentation, two at the brewery, using what its brewers call the “double drop” system, and one in the bottle.
Brakspear’s in Henley, Oxfordshire was about the last brewery in Britain to use what most brewers call the “dropping” system of fermentation, (rather than “double drop”); the fermenting wort is “dropped” after 12 or 16 hours from the initial fermentation tun into another vessel below to continue and finish its fermentation, leaving the unwanted “gick” produced in the early part of the fermentation behind. When Refresh, then owner of the Wychwood brewery, purchased the right to brew Brakspear’s beers after the Henley brewery closed, it moved all the “dropping” equipment from Henley to Wychwood’s site in Witney, Oxfordshire.
However, although nobody else, or almost nobody, as far as I am aware, still regularly uses the “dropping” method to brew beers in Britain, it was once wide- spread. As the brewing scientist Charles Bamforth has commented, the existence of several different technologies for trying to achieve the same end is an indication that none of them is perfect. One of the important processes any brewer has to perform is to remove the excess yeast from his fermenting beer, and Victorian brewers used at least six different methods to achieve this. The Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard, in his four-volume Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland, published 1889/91, described four of them, saying that while Burton used unions, Yorkshire the stone square and London and the South the skimming system, the beer was finished “in the East of England by the dropping system”.
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 Dove in Upper Mall, Hammersmith is one of London’s favourite riverside pubs, famous for good beer, for a fine view of the Boat Race and for what is supposed to be the tiniest public bar in Britain, at just four feet two inches wide and seven feet ten inches long. This is the story of that tiny bar, a tale of deceit and mystery.
The pub’s popularity means a raft of mentions in guidebooks, with most of the “facts” printed about it being demonstrably wrong. At least two current guides to riverside pubs claim Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn used to visit the Dove, which would have been difficult without a time machine, as it wasn’t built until around 60 years or more after Charles II died.
Even the 2008 Good Beer Guide entry on the Dove contains four historical errors in 70 or so words. It says the pub was “licensed in 1740 as the Dove’s [sic] coffee house” (it wasn’t), and James “Thompson” (sic – it was Thomson) composed Rule Britannia in an upstairs room (he didn’t – in fact he didn’t “compose” it at all, Thomas Arne composed the tune and Thomson wrote the words, most probably at his home in Kew).
How the Dove came to have such a tiny bar was explained by George Izzard, the pub’s landlord from 1931 to 1965. He wrote one of the best “landlord’s memoirs”, One for the Road, and he made the Dove a magnet for celebrities from Ernest Hemingway to Alec Guinness (who drank Guinness) to Dylan Thomas (whose usual order was mild-and-bitter, according to Izzard).