I was so excited. A chance to look around London's last proper brewery, at the invitation of no less than the brewing director. And, most importantly for me, an opportunity to cast my eye over their brewing records.
I hadn't expected the head brewer, John Keeling, to be around. He'd warned me that he'd be away on jury duty at the Old Bailey. Fortunately for me, he'd been excused. The judge had recognised the important work a brewer does.
We started of in John's office, accompanied by Derek Prentice, one of the other brewers, a veteran of Young's and Whitbread. John showed me one of their old brewing logs, from 1906, that he keeps in his office. And there it was. On the second page I turned to. An AK log.
Let me explain. AK is one of my major obsessions, up there with Gose and Broyhan. What exactly was AK? What did AK stand for? At last I was going too have at least the first of those questions answered.
John and Derek were very kind and patient in explaining how they do things at Fullers. I'm just a thick amateur, after all. What they are doing with Prize Old Ale is particularly fascinating. As someone who was extremely disappointed with the last Gale's bottling (none of my 10 bottles had any trace of carbonation), I was very pleased with the way they are now handling it. The batch that's currently in the shops was fermented at Gales, in their unlined wooden fermenters. Then shipped to Chiswick and left to mature for two years. When it was bottled, forty barrels were left in the maturation tank. The next batch, which will be brewed in Chiswick, will be mixed the old forty barrels to retain the genuine Gale's character. It's basically a solera-type system.
What's the Gale's character? Brettanomyces, basically, picked up from the wooden fermenters. I asked John if he was worried about having brett around. "No, we have good control. But a couple of years ago I would have given you a different answer." He was very enthusiastic about Prize Old Ale and clearly very proud of the new version. And so he should be. It's a cracking beer. And not something anyone else is really doing, with the possible exception of Greene King with their 5X, though that just ends up in a filtered and pasteurised blend.
One of the nice things about the brewery, is that when the equipment has been modernised, they've left an example of the old kit in situ. I've spent much time recently reading about old brewing equipment. Far more than is healthy. Sometimes, it's quite hard to visualise what it looked like, even when there are illustrations. Now here was an old-fashioned mash tun right in front of me. Aaah. That's what an underback looks like. And there's a Steele's masher. I'd expected something larger.
John started his working life at Wilson's, the Watney-owned brewery in Manchester. By the 1980's, they were using 40% raw barley. I imagine working at Fuller's is a good bit more fulfilling. He told me that they've stopped using caramel for colour adjustment, preferring now either chocolate malt or a malt syrup.
John explained the advantages of party-gyling. The main one is efficiency. Virtually no extract goes to waste. Which is I guess why it was so popular in Victorian times. And mixing the two worts in different combinations makes hitting the target gravity a piece of piss.
After 45 minutes with John, it was becoming clear to me just how tenuous my grasp of the technicalities of brewing was. From the old copper they've kept, I learned exactly what's meant by a "domed copper". He explained it's purpose and the need for a good, vigorous boil.
After reading Zythophile's article on the topic, I was particularly keen on seeing the dropping system fermenter. And an impressive sight it is, too. A towering, wooden round with a shallow copper square ("settling square") beneath it. The wort spent quite a short period in the round - around 12 hours - before being dropped into the square. The brewer determined the exact time by the look of the head.
Since the 1970's conical fermenters have been used for primary fermentation. There had been problems with the old squares. They were getting knackered abn the attemperators kept springing leaks. And they were difficult to clean. About the difference in the beer produced by the different fermenters, John was very clear. "The best beer came from the open fermenters. But also the worst. The average standard is far better from the conicals." All the prizes Fuller's have won have been with beer fermented in conicals.
Initially, the conicals were used for keg and bottled beer and the open fermenters for cask. But when they experimented with cask beer in the conicals, they immediately won Champion Beer of Britain at the GBBF. So they swapped the cask to the conicals and the keg to the open fermenters.
I asked John about the yeast used in the conicals. Their old yeast, he told me, had been a combination of three strains. They had selected the most suitable for the new fermenters. It also turned out to be the one that was most responsible for the Fuller's taste.
When we'd finished the tour, John took me to the old head brewer's house. The cellar is used to store their old records. And the chairman's beer and wine. I was left to peruse and photograph the logs for as long as I wanted. The logs go back to at least the 1880's. The handwriting is quite a challenge in the older ones. I made a quick trawl throgh the decades: 1880, 1897, 1908, 1923, 1935, 1949, 1955, 1962 and 1968. I think that's it. I've not had chance to look at the photo's properly yet.
I was gobsmacked to find they were still brewing Porter in 1949. I thought it had died out in WW II in Britain. Even more surprising was that they were still brewing it in 1955. (Jumping ahead, a couple of days later I pinned down the exact demise of Whitbread Porter: the last brew was September 9th 1940.) I also spotted a beer enigmatically called OBE. I asked John what the initials stood for. "Old Burton Extra." Oh, oh. I almost danced with excitement. Fuller's Burton, which was replaced by ESB in the early 1970's. And one of the beers I had most hoped to find in the logs.
When I'd taken enough photos in the cellar (after about two hours), John took me along to the brewery tap to continue our chat over a few beers. I'd been longing to try their beer aged in whisky barrels. After much wrangling with the excise men, it's just about ready for release. The upside to these problems is that the beer stayed in the casks longer than intended. The extra time in the barrel has added a delicious vinous element, in addition to the whisky notes that you would expect. And a touch of brettanomyces character, too. What can I say? A top beer, unlike any other whisky-barrel beer I've tried. Hopefully, it will be in the shops soon.
John was very enthusiastic about barrel ageing. He's been very pleased by how much the beer had developped while in the cask. The real changes only started kicking in after 6 months to a year in the cask.
What he'd told me about Prize Old Ale had me drooling earlier. I wasn't disappointed. Certainly tart, but not at the expense of balance. And the lively carbonation really lifts it, making it disconcertingly drinkable for a beer of its strength. A proper Old Ale. I need to check if they have any in Bierkoning. John's clearly very proud of it. I think he's got a world-beater.
Almost a perfect day. True, I did get soaked to the skin on the walk from the tube station. But that didn't dampen my spirits in the slightest.
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