Fullers Vintage Ale is a beer love story that goes back a long way for me. I have always had a weakness for good barleywine, strong beers with a vineous quality and a sweetness like dessert wine – other than that, I don’t like sweet beers at all. No sugar or caramel taste for me, please.
As the name suggests, Fullers Vintage Ale is a beer worth keeping, and furthermore, it’s a beer that changes a little from year to year. It’s always a matter of taste how long to cellar such a beer, but it certainly needs a little time. Some years I have had it when it debuted at the Great British Beer Festival i August, and it’s been too fresh, too sharp at that time. Just half a year helps it to a more rounded character.
For New Years, I opened a 2013, and a 2014, and now I have also had a 2015 for comparison. As an example of the changing recipes, 2013 was brewed from the Pearl variety barley malt, a stand-out winter barley in the otherwise quite bad 2012 harvest, along with four British hops, Goldings, Sovereign, Challenger and Admiral.
Vintage 2014 was brewed from Goldings hops along with American Liberty and Cascade hops – no mention of the barley variety this year. In the 2015 vintage, it’s all British to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous Maris Otter barley variety. Floor malted Maris Otter, and Target, Northdown, Challenger and Goldings hops were used.
Now, the Fullers Vintage Ale always has the main elements in common. First of all, the malt character. A rich and filling British pale malt, with freshly baked bread and biscuit, along with toffee and fresh grain and sometimes a pinch of honey after aging. It’s also always followed by the Fullers house character of orange marmalade, a result of the Fullers yeast playing together with the British malts and hops, and probably also mechanics in the brewhouse.
The differences between years is a slight variation in hop character, and more importantly, I think there are simply differences in how well the brewing turned out. Some vintages just appear to taste “better” and that’s no matter how fresh or old you drink it. I’m afraid I have never been able to pick out any differences in the malt character between barley varieties.
I have had the Fullers Vintage Ale 2013 before, without taking notes. When I had it at New Years, just 2½ years after its release, it was showing signs of age. Not that it had turned bad in any way, but it would be impossible to do a meaningful comparison with the 2014 and 2015. The malt aroma has that honey note, and there are hints of dried fruits, not just from the 8.5% alcohol, but from a beginning oxidation.
In the 2014 vintage, the brewmaster has really tried something new, adding American hops to the mix. There is more fruit than usual in the nose, and while the orange marmalade still dominates, there’s also peach and apricot, and a touch of grapefruit, the classic Cascade character. But malt is still playing a lead role, and it’s not particularly bitter, just really well balanced. I immediately went out and bought more, as it felt like a vintage that will remain great over the years.
In 2015 we’re back to all British hops, and it’s a more subdued character again, with great malt character, marmalade and light hoppy notes in the grassy and earthy range. It’s quite typical for British hops, and it’s not as bad as it sounds when the hops are there to play a supporting role to the malt.
The Fullers Vintage Ale has really become a classic in the beer world. If you have somewhere to purchase it, I highly recommend getting to know it. And if you want to do vertical tastings in the future, you need to get several bottles for the cellar.