“As you will know, I am a professional drinker… and you are all amateurs,” begins John Keeling, the Fuller’s head brewer, as he invites us to open and drink the bottle in front of us. This is an old beer and by old I mean very old: 2nd September 1891, to be precise. Yet it was only bottled recently… The beer is the first in a new series for Fuller’s called Past Masters and it involves looking back at old brewing records and recreating them as closely as possible. For all the open-mouthed e-gazing at what’s going on around the world in terms of modern developments of brewing and the boundary-breaking beers being brewed with superhero hops or mind-bending processes, I find it constantly and deeply interesting to think about how a beer would’ve tasted a hundred years ago or more, so the Past Masters project definitely appeals to me.
XX is the first of the Past Masters. Technically it’s a XXK but you can also drink it fresh so XX works (in ye olde brewing days, X denoted a mild beer, XX was a strong beer and XXK was a strong beer made for keeping; the Fuller’s version is a strong beer which can be drunk now but which should also improve if kept, you see). Ron Pattinson had a hand in the recipe and the history side of things and he was also there for the brewing of the beer which is a pale strong ale (an early example of a Burton Ale), 7.5%, made with Plumage Archer malt which was a variety used from 1903 onwards (close enough to 1891...), sugar and heavily hopped (53 IBUs) with Fuggles and Goldings. The recipe is pieced together as closely as possible from the original and it represents a “rediscovery of the past,” as John Keeling put it.
It’s young in the bottle (brewed over summer then aged for three months) but it’s simultaneously intensely flavoured yet subtle, as if there are things in there wanting to be found but still hiding away, not ready to come out yet. The malt is immediately impressive and mouth-filling, then combining with the hops to create an oral IMAX experience which edges towards a savoury taste, not sweet, with some hints of candied orchard fruit and an estery, botanical, dry finish from all those hops and the booze. It’s good but it promises to get better…
The dimension of time is what Fuller’s are looking at with these beers. They are at once about looking back to the past to recreate a recipe not tasted in many generations, but at the same time these are beers which will last for a generation themselves and they will change over that time. As such, the Past Masters work as a new sibling to the Vintages and Brewer's Reserves which are designed in a way to make them ideal to leave for a few years to develop.
I find the aging process fascinating. I also love the idea of the Past Masters series and look forward to seeing what comes next – it’s a chance to taste a tangible and sensory glimpse at history, recreated as closely as possible for us to drink now. Who knows what will actually happen to the XX but I intend to buy a few and wait a couple of years to find out.
I will also be buying a lot of the Vintage 2010, which we tried on the night along with Vintage 2005 and 1999 and the two Brewer's Reserves - we were there specifically to look at aged beers. The Vintage '10 is absolutely fantastic already (sometimes they need a few months or years to develop but this is already beautiful). I was admiring the cherries and almonds in it and then a sudden burst of mandarin caught me off-guard and got me even more excited. This is the best fresh Vintage I’ve tasted (even if I have only had a few of them) and I hope it will get better and better.
The XX is now on sale at the brewery shop in Chiswick. I think the Vintage is also out now.