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Classic Beer of the Month December 2010: Fuller's Gale's Prize Old Ale

Fuller's Gale's Prize Old Ale, 9% (UK)

The future of Prize Old Ale seemed in doubt after the closure of Gale’s brewery in Hampshire, but happily the famous beer has survived and is in good shape.

Fuller's Prize Old Ale 2007The history of the beer dates back to the 1920s when the recipe was brought to Gale’s in Horndean by a Yorkshire brewer. Over the years it became famous as the strong beer (ABV 9%) in the small, corked bottle, one of only five bottle-conditioned ales still in regular production in the UK when CAMRA was founded in 1971.

With the end of brewing at Gale’s in 2006, fans of the beer worried that they had seen the last of POA, but Fuller’s, I’m pleased to say, has risen to the challenge of keeping this small, but iconic, brand alive.

Normally when I write about a beer I focus on the ingredients – in the case of POA that would be pale, crystal and chocolate malts, seasoned with Fuggle and Golding hops. But with POA the real character comes from the ageing process, as Fuller’s swiftly discovered.

The first vintage issued from Fuller’s Chiswick brewery had in fact been brewed at Gale’s before the brewhouse was stripped bare. Prize Old Ale 2007 was already maturing in tank and was therefore shipped to London to complete its journey to bottle.

When the beer was finally issued, however, it divided opinion. Seasoned POA drinkers claimed the beer was nothing like it used to be; others, myself included, thought it a great improvement.

What was different? Well, the carbonation for a start. POA always had varying levels of fizz, dependent on two things: the amount of natural CO2 created in the bottle as the beer conditioned and the security of the cork seal, which was, at times, rather inadequate at keeping gas in and air out.

At Fuller’s the decision was taken to package the beer with a higher level of natural carbonation and to seal the (now larger, 500 ml) bottles with a conventional crown cap.

The other major difference came in the taste, which was much more acidic and tart than many people remembered from earlier bottlings. Fuller’s head brewer, John Keeling, explains why this was the case:

‘It was massively infected when it came from Gale’s,’ he says. ‘That was the natural background of that brewery. They fermented in wooden, unlined fermenters. They couldn’t clean those properly so you always had infection.’

With the beer stored for nearly two years, that harmless infection had developed a sharp acidity that is more commonly associated with Belgian lambic or sour red ales. To me, Britain had suddenly gained its own Rodenbach – tart, sharp and fruity.

Others were not so keen. When I showcased the beer at a tasting I hosted at the Great British Beer Festival, the audience split down the middle, Marmite-style. Some loved it; others loathed it.

Compromise the Answer

Even in Fuller’s own ranks there were those who questioned whether this was the sort of beer the company should be producing. Compromise was the answer, a compromise that has brought POA back towards was it was like in its Gale’s days.

When the 2008 vintage was brewed at Fuller’s it was mixed with 40 barrels of the original Gale’s beer. This ensured the natural infection continued into the new brew. When the new brew was finished, 40 barrels were removed and held back for mixing with the following year’s product. This had always been John Keeling’s plan and it’s a process he intends to continue.

 ‘In a way, there will always be part of that original Gale’s beer for ever more in Prize Old Ale,’ he says.

For the 2008 vintage, however, a second brew of POA was also produced and was blended into the infected version. This reduced the acidity to around 40% of the previous year’s beer, leaving the beer with a light tartness but also allowing the flavours of malt and winey dried fruit customarily found in POA to show through more strongly.

The result is far more mellow product than the 2007 version, and in my view less interesting, but it’s still a splendid beer.

Earlier this year, I dropped into Fuller’s to enjoy the rare privilege of tasting a maturing POA straight from the tank. It still had several months to go and had yet to be blended with fresh beer, but was already on its way to greatness.

That 2009 version is not likely to go on sale until spring 2011, which means there’s some debate about which year should go on the label. But that’s a minor issue. What’s important is that, thanks to John and his team, the beer with the distinguished past now has a rosy future.

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