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.
It could be better: compared to what is going on in the United States, microbrewers in this country still mostly lack imagination. But that may be perhaps in part the fault of drinkers unwilling to experiment outside their comfort zones in trying unfamiliar types of beer, while American drinkers are not just happy but eager to go for local interpretations of all kinds of brews, from Belgian to Bohemian via Bavarian.
While most of the 500-plus new small brewers in Britain (and there’s a reason to be cheerful, that we have so many) devote most of their efforts to the standard bitter/best bitter duopoly, though, there are others, from the Brewdog boys in Aberdeen to Alastair Hook at Meantime in Greenwich, devoted to pushing the boundaries. And there are older-established brewers not afraid to experiment either. Hall & Woodhouse in Dorset has been constantly innovative over the past 10 years, and while personally I haven’t liked all that they have done, some of their new beers have been terrific: I particularly enjoy the damson-flavoured Poacher’s Choice, for example, a great winter beer.
Another regular innovator is Fuller Smith & Turner, now the only old-established family brewer left in London. Fuller’s could happily sit on the success of London Pride, one of the country’s biggest-selling cask ales, but they don’t. They pioneered “vintage” bottle-conditioned beers with Vintage Ale, which gets a new release every year; they helped made golden ales more mainstream with Discovery; they saved Gale’s Prize Old Ale, about the only survivor of an ancient English style of sour, aged beer, from disappearing; and now they have given a boost to the small but growing cask-aged sector with the release last week of Brewer’s Reserve.
This has been a four-year project for John Keeling, Fuller’s head brewer, since he first chatted to a Speyside whisky distiller about the different character drinks pick up when aged in casks that have previously been used for ageing other drinks. There was a long period of experimentation, to find out just what beer aged best in whisky casks, and what the best maturation period was. There was a long fight with Revenue and Customs over the exact legal position of what Fuller’s wanted to do. (The brewery themselves won’t say anything, naturally, it’s too political, but I’d like to ask why Scottish brewers who age beers in ex-whisky casks, such as Harviestoun and Brewdog, and now Williams Brothers, don’t seem to have the same problems with the customs authorities Fuller’s did in England.)
Now the beer is finally on public release, in a nice cardboard box and a limited edition of 25,000 numbered bottles (mine was 16645), boasting more than 500 days (that’s around 18 months) of maturation in 30-year-old single malt whisky casks. So, er, what’s it like? This is certainly one of the most complex beers you’ll ever taste: a whisper of whisky, a hint of oak, a slightly sour nose, a very dry finish, all rippling through a foundation of smoothed-out bitterness and firm, rotund malt.
I was probably spoilt by tasting some of John Keeling’s earlier experiments at the Guild of Beer Writers’ seminar on wood aged beers last year: to get this past the Excise people and on sale, Fuller’s has had to water it down to below the strength of the strongest beer that went into it, which was Golden Pride at 8.5 per cent abv, and to me there’s a thinness apparent from that dilution. But at 7.7per cent this is still a beer to treat with respect: as the label points out, one bottle is only fractionally under your supposed entire UK government-approved alcohol units allowance for one day.
This is announced as number one in a series of cask-aged beers from the Griffin brewery: I join John Roberts, boss of the brewing side at Fuller’s in looking forward with anticipation to John Keeling’s next effort. The first Brewer’s Reserve is a beer you certainly have to try if you can, and I reckon it will not only meet with wide approval: it should encourage a few more brewers to experiment with cask-ageing too.
That I also look forward to: are there small brewers out there ready to show we can take on the Americans in adventurous innovation? Already small brewers across the Atlantic are holding wood-aged beer festivals, to acclaim from drinkers: how great it would be to see one of those in the UK.