Caught by the River

Pint By The River – Fuller's Vintage Ale 2007 8.5%

Ben McCormick | 15th August 2010

by Ben McCormick

On my first day at work – at ASDA in Chadderton – I was sent to the warehouse for a long weight. Not wishing to disappoint, I strode up to the supervisor and said what I’d come for. He directed me to the ‘Goods In’ entrance hatch. “Over there,” he barked, with a smirk.

Some 45 minutes later, a furious, ruddy faced department manager stormed up to me and asked what I was doing. I told him I’d come for a long weight. His mood softened and he wandered off, muttering something about oldest trick in the book. It gradually dawned on me what had happened.

A couple of decades later, I’m standing in Waitrose – having clearly scaled the supermarket heights – and am on the point of buying a bottle of Fuller’s Vintage Ale. It’s the beer equivalent of buying in a wine to lay down, a concept still alien to me. One for a special occasion or a celebration. So I test my resolve and buy it, hiding the bottle in a cardboard box somewhere in the spare room.

Three years pass and I’m emerging from a bout of self-imposed abstention. Jeff has quite reasonably asked where my next column is, so I decide now is as good a time as any to dust off the bottle and give it a taste.

According to Fuller’s tasting notes, Vintage Ale is a ‘truly distinguished bottle-conditioned ale, crafted by Head Brewer John Keeling’. They blend that year’s choicest malt and hops, leaving some yeast in each bottle so the beer matures over time. I’m sampling the 2007 edition, of which only 150,000 bottles were made.

It’s rich and fruity, like malt loaf soaked in sherry or still-baking Christmas cake. Massively intoxicating just to the nose.

Overflowing with liquorice and treacly, cloying Armagnac, this weighty ale wields an orange peel sharpness that crackles between the teeth. Rotund and formidable, it’s bullying my tastebuds with swaggering complexity and a rasping after-bite that only lets up because it knows full well you’ll be having more just as soon as you can.

I’ve never known a finish last this long. It’s still going strong as I reach for another glug. Chestnut red of hue, disguising the punch it packs. Like a false flat on a steep road or a placid mill pond that hides murky, treacherous depths of the kind only plumbed by a Jim Reeves croon. I’m driven straight to my armchair and practically nailed into it, clad in a caramel cardigan straight-jacket for good measure. There is perhaps a case for using this as an immobilising agent for hyperactive delinquents or dangerous escaped wild animals from the zoo.

Disappointingly, I haven’t managed to resist opening it until after the best before date, when the already dizzying complexity is said to intensify. There are tales of some hen’s teeth rare bottles from more than a decade ago changing hands for totally unreasonable sums as a result. Nevertheless, three years seems a long enough wait for an ale. If I wait another three to taste a beer this good, it’ll not have been in vain.