That Musty Box Of Fuller’s Vintage Ales

First conclusion of the experiment: the boxes are far less mould caked
when not left in a corner of a cold room for a decade.

OK, it wasn’t so bad. I was worried there for a bit but its gonna be OK. Turns out I have doubles. I have leeway. But, come to think of it, this box holds ten years of Fuller’s Vintage Ales, 2007 to 2016 and it’s high time I tucked into them. First, I bought them and tucked in right away. Later, I would do some comparing and contrasting, like the .05 v .10 and the ’06 v ’11 but I didn’t keep it up. I just stock piled.

I used to stockpile. Like those Stone Vertical Epic Ale annual releases. Like the Thomas Hardy ales. I ended up giving away Stone’s 05-05-05 to 12-12-12 more out of a sense of boredom than anything. By the end of the project it was a parody of itself. Reports were that a third were great, a third were fine and a few plain sucked. Such is the path of big US craft. Yet, they gave more joy to those gifted than my THA’s are given me now. Yik. Malt reduced to soy sauce. Hops now only offering the residue left after I boiled down my childhood ’45s. So glad I saved them. So, tonight I begin my attack the box at the back of the cellar.

First up and this Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2015 is not giving me the joy. There’s an astringent green vegetable taste in the middle of my pint where, you know, rosy cheeked English youth gathering in autumn’s harvest should be gamboling… cavorting even. But it’s clear and the colour of a love match between a lump of amber and a chestnut – which I will grant you is a bit of a range. And it raises a good head. As ale it is not fouled. BAer review speak of a wooden bitterness. I get that.  Don’t want it. But I get it. Yet… as it sits it moves from astringent green vegetable to astringent exotic orange-like citrus fruit you couldn’t pronounce but thought you would buy anyway because “hey, it’s Christmas!” and then you find it dried out a bit at the back of the shelf weeks later, closer to February than December. Which is better. I now get some husky grain. I can even see Seville marmalade from here. Even if made by my cray cray great-aunt well past her marmalade glory days. Household helpful hint: open this and let it breath for an hour.

I had to wash both bottles of the 2014. The first one I pulled out was stored upside down and it’s showing a need to sit for a bit. Cloudy. And both have stage one designate substance issues on the box and label. In the mouth, again with the musty staleness. Gonna let it sit a bit but at least its not paying homage to a green pepper. Later. Better. Still maybe infanticide as the flavours have not resolved. There is a hay loft grainy dry as well as a a rich earthiness. If my garden compost tasted like this I’d be ecstatic. Thinking about it, Gouda and mushrooms on toast. That would work well with this. Later still, the narrative is adds a dry stone aspect. I am now walking on a path on a hot day through rocky fields like those in our nearby fine wine region.  The hops after an hour have a rich sweet field herb and mint aspect. I once owned a scythe and an acre garden needing tending. This is taking me back there.

[More later. An on-going project… until it’s all gone.]

A few days later, the 2013. Bottle washed and cap popped. Cold. Canadian cellar in February cold. Gotta let it sit but the first sniff and sip are promising. Cream, grain and rich sweetness.  Unlike its two juniors, nothing off yet. Receding beef brothiness shifting towards sweet stewed apple. But mainly a mouthful of husky graininess. And cream. Brie cream, though. The cream made by the Brie cows. There’s something going on there. A Brie thing. Brie-like. Maybe. Thick viscous stuff. But no earthy brooding and nothing like Seville marmalade. Fresh and open an hour later. A lovely beer.

One more week has passed. The 2012 just opened had a far less challenging bottle. Cold from the final few boxes in the beer cellar it is stunning, exemplifying what I absolutely love about great beers. Masses of cream cut orange marmalade.  I curse 49 year old me for not buying cases and cases of this. Kumquat even. I say that as a man who just this very afternoon roasted two chickens stuffed with kumquats. Just saying. Go eat kumquats if you don’t understand. Tangy, fresh, intense, bright citrus. I am pouring half an inch at a time into a dimpled pint mug and ramming my nose in, sucking the aroma in deeply.  [That, by the way, is how to drink fine beer according to me.] As it warms, the graininess starts to assert itself. So now it is like wholewheat bread with a double cream and marmalade spread. I should be graphing this, with different brightly colour lines tracing the taste every fifteen minutes. I am going to leave it there. I am having a moment. OK… ten minutes later weedy herbal notes as well as a nod to beef broth come out. Stunning.

Ontario: Golden Beach Pale Ale, Sawdust City

kwakAh, my least favorite glass ever meets my favourite brewery of 2016. I got the Kwak glass likely the best part of a decade ago and had to wash a decade’s worth of dust off it to celebrate or mark or mourn today’s news. I am not sure I deeply care as I have never liked the beers of Bosteels all that much – though I liked Kasteel in 2004. Jeff has some of the early reports. Suffice it to say that the Great Satan now has a maker of muted B grade Belgian malty things in its portfolio. My world has not altered.

Which is not what I said when a number of mid-central Ontario’s Sawdust City beers started showing up in tins placed on retail shelves here in south-eastern Ontario. Great value at about $2.75 CND each, they all have more then held up their end of the bargain. This 4.5% ale pours a swell yellow gold with a rich white head. On the nose there’s plenty of weedy herb along with a fair chunk of white grapefruit rind over a cream background. The swally is interesting. A brightly ringing bitterness elbows out a modest lemon cream cake foundation. Lots of dry white grapefruit pith from the four hops named on the side of the can. Busy but still attractive. Especially on a day that is hitting 102F with the humidity.

You know, I’ll pour the next beer in another glass and put this monstrosity away likely until I hit my sixties. It’s all more than a little overdone, pointless marketing for a brewery that really hid in a safe spot in the market. Now owned by the forces of evil. Or of the future. Or just of reality. Gnashing over it all is a bit like being angry about that goldfish that died back in junior high. Things change. Things you have ultimately little to do with. Good beer, however, keeps showing up. Like this one from Sawdust City.

Vermont: The Farmhouse Tap & Grill, Burlington

Back from the road. There is still time ahead away from work but my banker and I agree that we would do well to pull back from the Atlantic shore and pull into the driveway. Not that I am grumbling. It was the attack on marine life that I had been hoping for. Good restaurants are a training ground for both manners and inquiry. Or at least that’s what I tell the bankers. I picked Farmhouse Tap & Grill for Sunday brunch, however, for one thing – line avoidance. See, it is a place that you have half a chance of getting a beer from Vermont’s celebrated brewery Hill Farmstead without driving off the road, up the hill and apparently waiting in line. Not a training ground for manners or inquiry. My own, that is.

 

 

 

 

First, this was brunch and it was a good one. By chance, we hit the place in a lull that turned into a blur of plates, eggs and coffee cups. And In that blur a mistake was made. A blessed mistake. We were served the wrong thing. When I pointed out that the Farmhouse sandwich was not mushroom and kale laced Eggs Benedict, we were told not to worry, to nibble on that and the proper order would be out soon. I scoffed the lot. I did offer to pay for both but there was none of that. So I upped the tip. Tipping well on the right occasion is a proper lesson for the young as well. Shun those who calculate closely after sharing a meal or a few pints. Shun them.

The beer from Hill Farmstead was named Edward. I thought we were past the inside baseball naming of beer but I guess not. Edward was the brewers’ grandfather. I will think of this as Gramp’s Pale Ale from herein out. It’s a bitter pale ale with weedy and black tea hop over, my companions agreed, apricot fruity malt. Not really the citrus and pine as advertised but that’s par for the course, right? Its creamy texture was cut by bite of the hopping. Minerally without being drying and dour. A fitting companion for drippy egg and kale. A lovely appetizing beer which cost $6.5 for a 12 oz snifter. Fine for one at a brunch but a bit steep for the session which its weight at just over 5% might invite.

 

 

 

 

An excellent place. The sort of place in the sort of city you can build a weekend trip around. I took photos of the drinks menu which I thought might be good fodder for discussion. I will post them in a bit when I figure out a handy way to display them. Quebec beers seem to earn a premium while some US craft were quite modest. It struck me as uneven. But the marketplace is a good educator in relative value. Or so I told the kids. School is coming up, I said. Back to math class.

England: Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2006 v 2011, London

In December 2010, I decided that I had to get at the task of drinking the Fuller’s Vintage Ales that I had been hoarding in the stash. I figured I needed to compare beers that were brewed five years apart and posted the ’05 v. ’10 results. Now, it’s time for the second edition comparing 2006 to their 2011. First, one thing to note is that I am using 200 ml German glasses for this experiment. See, the thing is, this was the week that the pint was dissed to a lower point than I have ever seen it dissed. My choice of glassware reflects that brave new world where reasonable measures of beer are a thing of the past. Still, I am sure these tiny tiny Teutonics will not let down this litre of greatness as they are wonderful wee things in themselves.

I reviewed the 2006 back in the day. It has clearly improved according to that description… or maybe my powers of description have. It now gives off an aroma of fresh bright orange marmalade on malt bread. Oddly, the scent is much stronger than the 2011 which gives off some booze and a bit of beef broth with not a lot more… or at least not nearly as much.

In the mouth, again there is no question that the 2006 is a bigger more complex beer at this point in its life. It’s got the malty smoked thing I noticed in 2006 and I get the green fig as well. But the texture is no longer what I likely meant when I wrote grain. It’s more like baseball glove leather now. Quite sweet as well. But well cut by what I had called black tea hops. They are now melded much more neatly together to give a sort of rose water effect. The 2011, by comparison, tastes of beer. There is a fresh acidity but the malt is a bit undeveloped. I had a 2006 Thomas Hardy Ale yesterday and it informs that idea. That pleasant little variety of acids that are in both ’06s of the last 24 hours sit dormant in the 2011’s pear juicy sweet ball of pale malt. The ’11’s box and insert card tells me that the malt is organic but not the variety. In 2006, the malt was Optic which the OCB tells me is the most widely planted variety in England.

First 400 ml down. Unlike the 2005 v 2010 comparison, I would not suggest the younger beer is cloying. It has a rustic hopping that is a bit twiggy and a bit menthol. Goldings, organic First Gold and Sovereign hops were used according to the box. They give a bit of a licorice effect at this point which may unpack into marmalade with time. I will let you know in 2016. The 2006, by contrast, relies on Fuggles and Super Styrian hopping. The OCB tells me that the Super Styrian – as opposed to the pending Super Dooper Styrian – is itself a form of Fuggles. From my lost homebrewing days, my world of English beer is divided into three: Goldings, Fuggles and Northern Brewer. I think 2/3s of this are demonstrated before me. The older beer leans to the hedge. The younger is more floral. Quite content to be the Mayor of Simpleton in such matters, it’s a distinction that works for me.

The head of the 2006 is worth comment – fine, densely packed off white bubbles giving a very appealing visual creaminess and a lovely maker of rich lacing. Otherwise the two beer appear to be quite similar. The elder is a bit clouded but I don’t care about the sorts of things. Each a very attractive deep orange amber ale.

700 ml gone and I am just going to enjoy the rest.. This is as high a point in my beer experience as any – and one that only cost me about 15 bucks and just half a decade. I am little proud of me. I was very sensible to start this series, to start saving these beers. The process may well see me out now that I think of it. There are far worse markers of another year’s passing.

Fuller’s Vintage Ale ’05 v.’10, South-like London, England

I have been wondering what to do with these single boxes of Fuller’s Vintage Ale I stick away every year. Seems a shame to blow them all in one binge even if shared with pals and plenty of notes. Not much to learn there. I needed a plan, a system. So, with that in mind, I figured that I would open the current version as well as the version from five years ago. That sounds like a plan. And it is a recurring theme. Just what the modern blogger needs: plans and themes. The boxes are note worthy in themselves if only to note that someone took the time to make the font on the box a little more elegant between 2005 and now – though it does not carry over to the card inside. And interesting to note that the 2005 is #10599 while this year’s model is #026673, expectant of its siblings growing into six figures. But let’s not get bogged down in packaging. Unless you really want to. No? Fine.

The 2005 opens with a fizt and immediately gives off a nutty sherry aroma…rummy even. Plenty of frothy oranged off-white head. In the mouth, I first get marmalade and sticky bun. There is a very nice light astringency around the edge. Nutty with almond a bit like Hungarian Tokay. Very rich with a pleasant candied quality but clearly working its way yeastily beastily through itself. The malt has pear juiciness in there, too. Before the pear shows up, in the first wash there is a hot wave that is almost tobacco. As it opens the tobacco and pear morph into a touch of licorice. In the finish there are complex twiggy things going on, something like hedge.

By comparison, the 2010 is simpler, heftier and sweetly cloying, the sugars not having broken down for half a decade of thermostatic abuse in my basement stash. Even the head is more of a uniform fine cream rather than the more bubbly open froth of its elder. The bitterness is more generalized and slightly rougher. The back of the throat heat a notch more pronounced. No sense of the pear in the malt at all but maybe bread crustiness instead. Good and pleasant but clearly a bit young by comparison like a cheese that has yet to develop its bite. Frosh.

Having said all that, I still have 80% of each bottle left. I feel like I should do some tests upon the fluid with, say, litmus strips… or maybe observe the reaction of small penned animals asked to bed down in the boxes laid down amongst the smelly wood shavings. But what can a data like that tell you? Look at the photo above. Science is not all its cracked up to be. Both beers are very moreish, rich and worth opening at this time of year. Each could stand up to old cheddar or stilton very nicely at the end of a big holiday meal. I expect I will go buy more 2010 and hide it from myself. I will. I’ll be a year away from the beginning of paying university bills by the time it’s ready. Better buy lots. They’ll probably be drinking them by then, too.

While we are thinking about it, it does make you think whether any nation on this planet can express the hidden capacities of good rich malt like the English can.

Obviousness Update: Monsieur Noix of Ireland calls me out over the geography but I am mere puppet in this respect, parroting the brewery itself.

Click on the image to the right as to the evidence at hand.

Wisconsin: Moon Man Pale Ale, New Glarus

It’s Memorial Day weekend in the USA and I am celebrating. Mainly because I’ve been sick since the middle of last weekend’s Victoria Day long weekend up here. Being in a border town it’s not a great stretch even if I can’t get over to witness one of the glories of the western world, a small town US parade. Eat a hot dog this weekend, woudja?

This beer was launched just a few weeks ago and arrived in a mixed 12 pack care of my Wisconsin mule – oddly by way of a village in north western Quebec. It gives off the aroma of peaches and apricots at an alarming level. It pours light burnished gold with an actively sustain pure white foam. On the swallow, theres a wall of pale malt sweet graininess with black tea hop with a weedy floral overlay. The finish is a bit tea, a bit bitter green with a squirt of juicy malt right at then end. Yum.

Structurally, it’s quite singular – a overly perfumed kolsch? And at 5% its a reasonably sessionable beer but I bet it could be rolled back to 4.4% with reasonable integrity. BAers got the love thang.

Wisconsin: Stone Soup, New Glarus, New Glarus

A Belgian pale ale from the USA’s Upper Midwest. This one smells good. Either that or I smell really bad. I’ve just finished two 16 hour days so it is not beyond the realm of possibility. But I’ve been in a jacket and tie the whole time. So it’s likely the beer or the guy next to me was inordinately polite.

Medium pale golden ale under a thin rim of white. Apple and pear on the nose with a little nutmeg. More in the mouth framed in a sweetish effervescent rich ale. Plenty of bready yeastiness. Dryish ending with black tea and twiggy hops and that lingering spice. A reasonable session beer at 5.3%. Part of a New Glarus mixed 12 pack that made the trip from near Lake Superior to the east end of Lake Ontario. A respectable level of BAer respect but probably not enough.

Ontario: Stuart’s Natural, Scotch Irish Brewing, Lanark

snsa1Out and about on Friday I was quite happy to see this stubby at the LCBO, a cousin to the porter, imperial stout and IPA made by the Scotch Irish branch of Heritage Brewing. I was even more happy to see that it was a 3.7% ordinary bitter for $2.20 a bottle.

It pours a bright caramel-amber with a rich off-white head that resolves to a thick rim. In the mouth, there is a bit more of a carbonation zip than I would have thought an ordinary bitter might provide but it is relatively still compared to most ales you run into. The real pleasure in the beer is the amount of raisin-nutty grainy body that is packed into such a light brew. 95% of 5% beers in Canada would be thinner than this. The bitterness is in the English rather than American style with no room for citrus or pine or any other room freshener scent. Just a sweat (and cloy) cutting black tea jag.

Entirely delightful take on a too rare style usually reserved for thoughtful home brewers these days. If this is the same beer reviewed by three beer advocates, they have missed the point.

Ontario: F + M Brewing, Elmira Road, Guelph

Neat and Tidy

Not all my travels for beer around Lake Ontario were on the US side. No, I headed straight for what must be the densest centre of brewing in Canada: Guelph, Ontario. Between the 401 and highway 7 on the west side of town you have national brewer Sleeman as well as venerable province-wide supplier Wellington as well as the more local micro F+M Brewery.

I dropped into F+M just before lunch and was met by the brewer who was right in the middle of mashing in. Rather than saying I would pop back at a more convenient time, I barged into the back…or, rather, followed him back to check out what was going on. What was going on was a heck of a lot of activity. In addition to the mashing man – is that Charles MacLean? – one guy was loading kegs onto the delivery van while another was cleaning out one in a row of bright tanks. It was the busiest little operation I had ever seen. When he got a moment, I was told they have been around for about a decade, are in the middle of a great season with 70 or so draft accounts and have their bottles in many stores from Toronto west to London.

 

 

 

 

Soon a few more guys showed up and I had a quick chat with Brian Reilly, the brewery’s General Manager as I picked out a mix to review:

Stone Hammer Premium Light: I like that breweries are being honest about the need to supply the summer beer market as well as the demands of those who are not wanting to move too far from the comfort of their macros. Light beer can have a perfectly respectable place in a brewer’s range and this one is a fine example. Clearly grainy and a bit honey sweet, it also has some bright apple notes as well as a subtle touch of twiggy hop. Very light champagne in hue with white clinging foam. 4.2%, this one is not rated on Beer Advocate.

Stone Hammer Premium Pilsner: one notch towards gold deeper in hue with a fine rich head maintained by the very active carbonation. Sweetish with a slight stocky aspect, a short of lightly-smoked husky quality, with a tiny bit of an orange peel note in the aroma along with grass. The finish is stone, grass and honey. 5% and all but one of 14 BAers approve.

Stone Hammer Dark Ale. Translucent chestnut with a cream froth and foam head. A very nice take on a dark ale with, again, plenty of grain, maybe a note of black malt as well as smoked raisiny malt. Fresh bread yeasty. A fairly dry example with some twig bitterness from start to stop. Just two BAers take note but both approve. Another 5% brew. A beer to have bacon on a bun with. Cooked over a fire. In the woods.

MacLean’s Pale Ale: Deep amber ale under a fine white head. I have tomorrow night’s BBQ ribs wallowing in this one overnight. Good move. Strong grain with some smoked rye-esque thing happening over pear juiciness. The label has a piper and, except for the level of hop bitterness, this might be a Scots 80/ ale. In the malt there is a little apple and date with some autumn herb but plenty of husky bread crustiness. Dry stoney finish at, again, the government approved 5%. This one would go well with grilled coarse sausage with onions. All eleven BAers like it.

So all in all, very Canadian with our love of that tilt towards grainy stockiness. When fresh, like these beers, it can be a great thing and really the thing that sets Canadian beer apart – a roughness that verges on rye. Smart brewers given the Canadian taste for rye whisky. This brewer provides a great lesson in what that profile can be. Plenty of chew to the malt but a good reminder that beer is made of barley.

Quick Note: 2006 Vintage Ale, Fuller’s, London, England

This one is being peddled at the LCBO right now for $6.50 for 500 ml. Nice packaging. This is bottle #65180. I have another 2006 hidden away with a 2005. Why? Because I am a nerd.

Tan frothy head over caramel ale. On the nose, just malt sweetness. Rich. Plenty of grain texture all in all and an exceptionally well hidden 8.5% with sweet malt and twiggy and slightly astringent hops on the wash around the chops. There must be more – start again. The nose is more than just sweet. There is a hay loft sort of clean organic smell. Tweedy. What about the taste? Fruit? Sultana and apple perhaps. Maybe one of those green fig varieties as well. Some smokiness as well but gentle. Black tea at the finish with creme caramel.

Some day I will do a side by side. Meantime, pick a few of these up even at this price. Thinking ale. BAers say yes.