Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Toast of Christmas Past

This Christmas I was blessed with an unexpected beery gift, courtesy of my 19-year-old self. How? As I mentioned, I visited my family in England recently. While browsing through my dad's wine cellar (i.e. garage) I found two dusty boxed beers that I remembered buying for him many years ago. For some beautiful reason, he'd neglected to drink them for thirteen years. Being a red-wine and scotch fanatic, he didn't mind too much when I packed them into my suitcase.

One of the beers is a bit special: a 1997 Fullers Vintage Ale. Fullers Vintage Ale is brewed in fairly small lots each year, and is recommended for aging. The beer is an "old ale" (malt heavy, brandy-like, dark, and very strong), and the recipe changes a little each year. 1997 was the first year of production for this beer, which makes this quite a rare find. My bottle was numbered #669 of only 85,000 produced — subsequent years have seen bigger batches, but never more than the 165,000 produced in 2010.

The other beer is a Shepherd Neames 1997 Christmas Ale. This beer is only 6.7% ABV compared with the Fullers' 8.5%. It is a darkish, spiced beer — reminiscent of a lighter scotch ale. Although Shepherd Neames is credited with being Britain's oldest active brewery (dating back to the 1700s), its Christmas Ale is slightly less prestigious than Fullers. Dave — who I invited over for the tasting — and I held out little hope for this one, but we were still excited to have two thirteen-year-old beers to compare.

We decided to taste both beers before Christmas dinner, fearing the palate-deadening effects of turkey, champagne and Christmas pudding. In early afternoon, over a cheese plate, we cracked the 'Neame first after leaving it outside the backdoor for an hour to bring it down to cellar temp.

We half expected it to have spoiled, noting the 1998 best-before date on the label. But apart from a sourish whiff upon opening, and a dirty-looking ring of sediment around the neck, the beer seemed perfectly fine. It had retained a fair bit of carbonation — exhibiting only slightly less than you'd expect from a fresh bottle of a similar style. The beer was sweetish, with orange-juice malt, and a very dull spiciness. It ended with a burned bitterness that was not particularly lovely, and both Dave and I noted that the spice had fared poorly (presuming it was pronounced when originally brewed). Not bad, but not a remarkable beer. Went well with stilton. Aside from some marked oxidation, there was little sign of thirteen years of aging effects —either positive or negative.

For the Fullers, we decided to run a 1997 vs 2010 comparison. Even though the recipe has changed, Fullers have kept it reasonably consistent so we thought it was a valid exercise. Again, both beers sat outside for an hour or so to take the edge off. The '97 poured a lot darker and murkier, and it was less carbonated, but like the 'Neames, it still had a fair bit of fizz. The aroma was markedly more powerful from the older beer: a sourish note and a slug of dark fruit, whereas the '10 was more akin to ginger ale in appearance and smell.

Taste-wise, the '97 blew the '10 away, in my opinion. To be fair, the beer is meant to be aged (3–4 years for peak results, according to Fullers). It was surprisingly hoppy, with a rich sherry tang. The malts were brutish slugs of brandy and near-burned toffee. There was a mysterious flavour that I described as "marzipan", but I failed to put my finger on what it was. It reminded me of a blackcurrant coughsweet at times too, but that sounds crap. The main impression was warmth and depth. The alcohol was prominent, but it was a such a flavourful beer that you welcomed the kick. The 2010, on the other hand, was thinner, with a ginger-ale tartness and a strong suggestion of pumpkin spices. It had a briney quality that worked with the relative sweetness. I liked the 2010 very much, but I think this beer really would do better with a bit of aging, and it was massively unfair to pit it against the '97, which was great. Whether the '97 had improved or not I cannot say without an account of earlier tastings of the '97, but this was an exceptional drink to my taste, and Dave loved it too.

This was my first tasting of a seriously old beer.  I really enjoyed the anticipation of the experience, especially as the '97 lived up to my giddy hype. It set us up for a pretty solid Christmas dinner, and as you can see, a fair few other beer treats capped off a great day (along with a Southern Tier Iniquity — not pictured here).
Two thank-yous:
First, Dave, for bringing beers and fine company.
Second, my Dad, who is not too well at the moment, for being a good mate, drinking partner, and unwitting steward of one of my happiest beer experiences to date. Cheers Dad.


  1. Wow - you guys are so lucky to have a 1997 Fuller's vintage ale - I'm very jealous. A bit of a sad disappointment for the Shepherd neame, I guess it wasn't built to age.
    Thanks for sharing the tasting notes!

  2. No problem. I was keen not to be too gushy about such an old beer, but it really did age fantastically well and I loved every last sip. I'll be looking out for more old beers. If only I had the will-power to age them myself...