The news that the Japanese brewing giant Asahi will be closing the Dark Star brewery in Sussex, which it acquired with the purchase of Fuller’s brewery in West London in 2019, is, of course, a tragedy for the people who work there – a Sussex martlet tells me that no attempt is being made to keep the small number of people still employed at Partridge Green within Asahi, as production of Dark Star beers moves to the Meantime brewery in Greenwich.
But as well as the human impact, there is also the new threat to what should be one of Britain’s most celebrated beers, which almost disappeared, which hung on thanks in large part to the passion and dedication of Dark Star’s head brewer, Henry Kirk, and which was relaunched after a resurrection at the Partridge Green brewery literally a couple of weeks before it was announced that the brewery would be closing.
I’m talking, of course, about Gale’s Prize Old Ale, the very last survivor of a tradition of solera-style British stock ales, first brewed at Gale’s brewery in Horndean, Hampshire a century ago, and still being brewed there when Fuller’s acquired Gale’s in 2006. John Keeling, then Fuller’s head brewer, ensured the beer survived by trucking up the last vat of POA, which still contained homeopathic quantities of the FIRST batch of POA, from Hampshire to Chiswick, but was only ever able to persuade his bosses to let him produce two or three more brews of this marvellous beer, rich, strong, deep, sweet-sour, dark, fruity, and umami-laden, thanks to each new brew being blended in to the stored, long-aged predecessor brews.
I wrote an article about POA in Pellicle magazine back in September where I said
If Gale’s Prize Old Ale were a building, it would long ago have been listed Grade 1 by English Heritage as something of exceptional national importance.
Sadly, there was not, 15 or so years ago, the appreciation of sour ales that there is today, and Fuller’s sales team simply did not understand Prize Old Ale, what it was and what it could be. Fortunately John Keeling resisted their calls to pour it away down the drain, and kept 80 hectolitres or so hidden in the Griffin brewery. Earlier this year Henry Kirk had some of that beer conveyed to Sussex, where he brewed a fresh batch of Prize Old Ale to the original Horndean recipe, carefully blended that into the old, well-travelled beer, and then waited while the aged yeasts and bacteria did their job.
The result is a marvel: an amazingly complex beer for a brew in one way so young, the sort of deep and fascinating palate (and palette) that beers such as Rodenbach or lambic achieve only after years in Belgian foeders: but then, parts of this beer have been around for a century. Among the flavours you’ll find damsons, dates, apples, stewed prunes, almonds, cherries, brown bread and red grapes, with just enough background tartness to balance the sweet, and a very dry, oily finish. I took two bottles a couple of weeks ago to a beer history conference in the US, and the American brewers and beer lovers who tried it raved over it. What this beer will be like when it actually has some bottle age (apparently there is some yeast in each bottle) I can scarcely wait to find out.
And now it’s all under threat again. When the Partridge Green brewery closes, the left-over POA, which was meant, had all gone as well as Henry Kirk and the POA fan club (which includes me, you might have guessed) hoped, to have been blended into another new batch of the beer brewed in a year or so from now, will be trucked back to Chiswick, where its fate will depend on whether or not Asahi realises what a fantastic potential flagship it has in this beer. Not the least of the problems is that Chiswick does not have the kit for short-run bottling. Apart from 5X at Greene King, there is no other beer like it being brewed in Britain today. It is, very likely, the style of beer that directly inspired Eugène Rodenbach, and if Rodenbach’s beers today are globally admired and venerated, then POA could and should be exactly the same.
I wrote a briefing paper for Henry Kirk back in January this year to support his proposal to Asahi to let him rebrew POA at Dark Star, in which I called the beer “A world classic and a heritage beer for the modern craft drinker”, and said
At a time when craft breweries around the world are installing giant wooden foeders – vats – to mature and age their beers in, and learning how to work with a host of micro-organisms to produce strong ales with the complexity of flavour and depth of taste of the finest wines, Prize Old Ale is both a remarkable century-old survivor and an exciting opportunity. It delivers everything a modern connoisseur of long-aged beers wants, and modern craft brewers are trying to deliver, with an authenticity and antiquity that very, very few other beers can match. The “solera” system used in brewing POA, where a little of each batch is held back to inoculate the following brew as it ferments, ensuring exactly the same micro-organisms get to work on the beer every time, and guaranteeing that the rich fruity flavours, underpinned with a touch of refreshing sourness, are reproduced with every brewing, is an ancient technique that modern craft brewers are only now re-learning as they attempt to make the sort of world-class beer that POA already is.
I said that
… with wood-aged beers, sour beers and the like proving increasingly popular, the time is perfect to show the world that in POA Britain has a beer that is as good as, or better than, any aged Belgian classic, Italian newcomer or American farmhouse-brewed star.
And I concluded that
Gale’s POA is the sort of marketing opportunity a global brewing company should be delighted to have in its portfolio. It has every exciting possibility of being turned into a cult premium beer, that would have a halo effect on the entire brand offering.
It looks as if that argument succeeded, with Henry being granted permission for the rebrew. Now POA’s future is threatened again, with the closure of the Dark Star brewery. So what can YOU do to try to ensure this marvel of a beer, this literally living example of Britain’s brewing heritage, survives? For a start, buy as much of it as you can. Show there is demand for it. Drink some, lay some down for a year, five years, ten years. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Pester your local bottle shop to stock it, your local craft beer bar to stock it. Pester Asahi UK’s on-line retail outlets: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second, write to Asahi UK and tell them how important this beer is, how important to Asahi it could be, and how Prize Old Ale has the potential to be a global phenomenon. Americans will form long queues for it, Japanese will adore it, Brazilians will attempt to imitate it, Belgians will turn a jealous shade of green. Ultimately, as all arguments involving commercial entities do, this will come down to money. If Asahi is smart, it could make a great deal of money indeed from this 100-year-old beer. I won’t doxx them by giving email addresses, but these are the people to send your letters to: Timothy Clay, managing director, Asahi UK, Sam Rhodes, marketing director, Asahi UK, and Stephen Young, sales director, Asahi UK, all at Asahi House, Chertsey Road, Woking, Surrey, GU21 5BJ. Tell them it will be bonuses all round if they let POA become the world-famous beer it should be.