Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Fuller's Flight of Ale (and the Joys of Recreationist Brewing!)

This little rascal is nearly always in my fridge.
There are two there right now.  But not for long.
It's been a good couple of weeks of beer sampling (in-between schoolwork and all that), and so I thought I'd check in with the blog to keep all you informed.  My big milestone recently was the fact that I managed to reach the 500-review plateau at BA this past month by indulging in a surprisingly delicious can of Central City Red Racer IPA - which is now available in a few LCBOs, so make sure you seek it out before it's gone!  Then, just last week, I managed to have my first beer from New Zealand - well, my first beer from New Zealand that didn't taste like cardboard and meat (I'm looking at you, NZ Pure Lager...).  Renaissance Brewing's Stonecutter Ale was a delightful scotch ale/wee heavy, with a bold peat flavor and mild smokiness.  Good enough brew to keep the metric system down and rob cavefish of their sight.  Very solid brew indeed.  To cap things off, the LCBO has brought out a great lineup of ales from one of my very favorite breweries, Fuller's of London - just the ticket as the weather starts to turn foul.

Fuller's is one of those rare 'large' English brewies whose reputation has not been killed by their high growth and ubiquitous presence.  Unlike many a large-scale brewery (Greene-King and Shephard Neame being two examples), Fuller's has maintained good standing with the ale-drinking community despite its large production numbers and popularity at home (London, specifically) and abroad.  I have long since been a huge fan of Fuller's canned ales, especially their Extra Special Bitter and London Porter, but have also been fortunate to be able to sample many of their brews on cask-draught around Waterloo.  Fuller's brews consistently rate highly as being among the best of their craft - their London Porter in particular has been cited as being one of the most authentic and delicious porters to be had.  And the great thing is, I can invariably find their Porter, ESB, and London Pride Pale Ale at pretty much every LCBO in the province, and they rarely cost more than a couple of bucks a can.  Iwas speaking to an English acquaintance of mine, who observed that Fuller's is really a London brewery, and you're often hard pressed to find it elsewhere in the UK, so count yourselves lucky, Ontario! Although I'm more than satisfied to have these great English ales available year-round, I've always on the lookout for more of the Fuller's lineup, and boy did they deliver:

A handsome lineup indeed, with some truly excellent brews in time for the season.   The emphasis this time around is upon tradition, with a classic English-style IPA, a strong barleywine ale (Golden Pride), and a festive winter ale all representing the old English method of brewing that has made Fuller's famous.  This year, however, Fuller's has gone one further with their "Past Masters" series of ales, whose recipes are taken straight from the annals of history, and has got me all a tizzy.

According to head brewer John Keeling: "Our brew books are very old, very thick and there are lots of them. We found fascinating insights into the work of my brewing predecessors. For instance, there were brews that used no English malt at all - in the 19th century. There are brewers doing that today and calling it innovation. I call it a rediscovering of the past."  In an interview with the Toronto Star this week, Keeling admits that while he lacks the "nimble" nature of a small craft brewery, his brewery boasts a truly impressive history worth delving into.  Many of the ales in Fuller's history have changed or been forgotten, but their brewing notes remain kept within the company - just waiting to be retested.  Should be amazing, and hell, if they screw up, they can always blame Past Brewington and his lackeys - win win!

The first such brew, Past Masters XX Strong ale, is based upon a long-forgotten 1891 recipe for a 7.5% ABV hearty ale, which according to the recipe utilizes a malting barley called Plumage Archer that probably hasn't been used since!  In addition to using bygone ingredients, part of the problem with these old recipes is that Past Brewington didn't bother or wasn't able to write down certain key details - in this case, the variety of hops used - for this ale, so Keeling and his team had to make some "educated guesses."  How will things turn out?  Let's drink...historically!

Beer: Past Masters XX Strong Ale
Type: English Strong Ale
ABV: 7.5%

Poured into a nonic. Light copper-tawny, with a slight haziness to it. Big bubbled inch of head, some lacing, a thin ring survives.

Nose is boozy and sweet, with notes of fruit, caramel and bread.  Indeed, this one has a bit of a barleywine feel to it due to its strength

Tastes pretty nice actually, though certainly quite sweet. Nice and fruity - I get peach and plum - caramel, and a fine bready character. The hops are tart and pure Goldings. Body is like a thin barleywine, slightly oily, and lower carbonation.

Not as robust as I would have hoped, but I prefer my ales a bit sweeter than most, so I quite enjoyed this. Perfect for a gross cold rainy day in Ontario. Great start to this nifty winter release! (Grade: B+)

The second feature in Fuller's Past Masters is a stronger, heartier version of their classic London Porter, a Double Stout based on a recipe from 1893.  Porters and stouts were the official beer of London town, at least until the classier pale ale or the exotic India pale began to subplant dark beer's hegemony.  Porters are called porters because they were consumed by, well, porters - guys who had to spend most of their day lifting and carrying other people's crap and probably needed a stiff drink or eight at the end of the day.  These early porters were thus usually strong as holy hell, pushing as high as 9.5%, although changing social attitudes and a war or two managed to sneak the ABV down to more respectable levels.  A stout is virtually identical to a porter, except they tend to be richer and heartier than regular porters (a "stouter" porter, if you will); modern tastes have tended to favor the drier stouts that are often associated with Ireland.  This brew thus hearkens back to a simpler, cholera-ier time where porters and stouts were strong and sweet as fuck.  I applaud this.

Beer: Past Masters Double Stout
Type: Export Stout (meaning suitable for export because of the high ABV)
ABV: 7.4%
Poured into a nonic. Dark coffee in colour, with a tan head about an inch high with decent retention and patchy lacing.  Looks as close to the London Porter as you're gonna get.

Nose is roasty malt, nuts, chocolate, coffee, caramel and a mild booziness.  There's an extra booziness in the back of this, which immediately makes me thing of Christmas and its associated drinking. Can't wait.

Well this is all kinds of awesome. Coffee, chocolate, cream, roasted malt grain, and a touch of oak make for one damned tasty stout. Roasted coffee provides a lingering finish. The extra booze is well contained, giving this brew a hearty, winter stout feel.  Creamy, moderate carbonation, mild bodied. Very drinkable.

Happy with this one as well - felt like an amped up London Porter, which is a very, very nice thing to say.  Clearly, those 1890s folks knew their porters and stouts - I could drink this stuff all winter, and just might do so. (Grade: A)

Beer: Fuller's Old Winter Ale
Type: Winter Warmer/English Pale Ale
ABV: 5.3%

I just put up the Christmas lights and got the decorations out of storage out of storage. There's snow on the ground and it's time for a winter ale, and I taught myself how to play Christmas Time is Here on the saxophone.  I need a winter haste.  Hey! Here's one now!

Poured into a nonic glass. Light amber-copper in colour, with a nice fluffy head. Good bit of lacing and some nice retention on this.
Nose is delightfully wintery. Caramel, chocolate, a bit of toffee, plum, currant and spice, with a mild leafy hops backing.

Rather than being the in-your-face style of winter ale that you see around the liquor store that try a bit too hard to seem 'Christmassy', this ale just naturally comes across as being seasonal and didn't have to smack me in the face to do it. All the hearty ale flavors are there in the foreground, which are dominated by a lovely sweet fruity spiciness.  It's all swept then clean with leafy, bittering hops that leave a lingering finish. Nice carbonation, pale ale body.

While not so overtly Christmassy as some other brews out there, this one is - first and foremost - a terrific pale ale, full of flavor and texture.  If it doesn't feel Christmassy enough for you, drink five in front of the tree and you'll see what I mean.  You heard me - drink seven.  (Grade: B+)

Though I could certainly keep going, I will stop it there - the post is getting a bit too verbose, even for my standards.  The other two brews you'll just have to try yourselves!  But I will leave you by saying that both the Fuller's IPA and Golden Pride are excellent ales for this winter season, the former being a classically brewed English India Pale, and the latter being a strong barleywine of a beer, perfect for cold evenings when only liquor will take away the pain of winter.  

This was an exceptional release that truly validates my love of Fuller's.  Not only do they regularly pump out quality English pale ales and porters for my enjoyment, they also have shown their skills at experimentation by channeling in to their brewery's robust history.  I've been to the LCBO recently enough to say that there aren't a whole lot of these brews left; there's not a dud in the bunch, so enjoy whichever one you can find!   Cheers!