Although I’ve enjoyed beer for many years, it is only in the last two years or so that my interest has surpassed that of an individual who regularly enjoys beer, and progressed into someone with a geeky obsession. About a year and a half ago, I was in Toronto visiting some friends and discovered “Fullers vintage Ale” on one of the shelves at the LCBO. I picked one up, along with a bunch of other stuff. After doing a bit of research online, it seemed that although the beer is drinkable in its fresh state, Fuller’s recommends that it be cellared, peeking in about three years. At the time, I had never really thought about aging beer, or even knew that people did such a thing. So, although I didn’t know what I was doing, I decided to hold on the bottle for an unknown amount of time.
Like wine, if you are going to age beer, there are several things to consider. However, from what I’ve read, the two most important pieces that one needs to uphold are “cool & dark.” Basically you want to avoid light as much as possible, and not allow for too many temperature fluctuations. Keeping your bottles in a basement, next to an exterior wall is ideal.
When you do decide to age beer, most people recommend that you buy two bottles, one to drink fresh, and the other to age. This way you can see the differences that arise – presuming you remember how it tasted after a few years go by (take notes I guess). I didn’t do this with my bottle of Fuller’s Vintage Ale, I only picked up one at the time. However, luckily, a couple of months ago, my good friend T.J. Blinn grabbed me a couple of bottles from the 2012 release. T.J. is a pretty recent beer enthusiast, who has written a couple of beer reviews for this site – and today, together, we are going to do a comparison of both the 2011 & 2012 versions of these bottles.
Fuller’s Vintage Ale is classified as an “Old Ale.” These beers generally have big, thick bodies, can be on the higher end of the ABV scale, with lots of malty character. They carry certain similarities to Barley Wines, but the alcohol levels are not quite as elevated.
We poured out both years into some identical wine glasses. Starting with the 2011, the first thing to hit my nose was a massive and incredible caramel aroma, as if the caramel had been on the stove, reducing down to nothing. Taffy and maple sirup also come to mind. In particular, it reminds me of “tire,” which those in Quebec or the northern American states would certainly know. It’s basically pure maple sap that’s boiled down into a thick delicious goop, which is then poured into snow to cool, and then eaten with wooden Popsicle sticks. There is also a great subtle woody character in the nose, with an ever so slight smokiness. I’m also getting a lot of English malt aromas, with an undeniable “Fullers” smell as well – a good thing. The difference in aroma on the 2012 were far more diverse than I had anticipated. The sweet caramel bomb wasn’t there; rather a subdued version of that sweetness emerged. Sadly there was also a metallic smell that was a bit overpowering, however this dissipated as time went on. There was a spicy, almost fruity character on the 2012 that I didn’t get as much of in the 2011. T.J. mostly agreed with me on this one. He got big notes of cooked caramel with woody undertones, and a nice spicy malt character, that as he put it, “wakes you up.” It was pretty early in the day after all.
On to the tasting. This was far less sweet then I expected given the huge caramel sugar smells from the nose. It also had a much lighter body then I had anticipated from a beer of this style, and subsequent alcohol content. There is some nice resulting warmth that comes from sipping these beers, which is nice on a cold January afternoon. The alcohol was indeed certainly present; it had a bite, but not too much. However, the year in the cellar certainly smoothed out the 2011, as the 2012 had a sharper, more apparent “booziness.” Although being surprised by how dry the beer was, the 2011 definitely had a caramel sweetness that was far less apparent in the 2012. Unfortunately the 2012 also carried some metallic flavors that were a bit off putting. This could have been my fault from storing it on its side for a while. Regardless, this subsided as it warmed. The 2012 started opening up a bit more as it warmed, giving up fruity and light hop flavors that the 2011 didn’t have. Again, in regards to taste, T.J. and I were on the same page. He felt this beer was very much on the Barleywine side of things, however with little to know bitterness and an easy drikability resulting from the carbonation.
This was a great experience. We finally had a chance to do a proper age comparison, and we were both quite surprised with the results. I was expecting variations, but not to the degree that we perceived here – especially on the nose. That year in storage gave the beer a sweet, caramel, and woody complexity that was just a faint nuance in the 2012 version. It is of course always possible that some of these differences lie in the fact that each brewing year can yield varying results, however I’m fairly confident that this was entirely due to the time it spent in the cellar. I now actually have a cellar, and it’s getting pretty full at the moment, so I’m excited to see the results of some more aging experiments. Also, I have another bottle of each of these, so look out for a three year comparison when the 2013’s come out next December.