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We were appalled to realise we’d missed the emergence of Fuller’s Past Masters in which the venerable London brewery recreates recipes from its old Brew Book, with advice from Ron Pattinson.
We rectified this by ordering cases of XX Strong Ale and Double Stout, both based on recipes from the 1890s.
The first thing that’s obvious is how dominant the Fuller’s yeast is in determining the flavour of their beer. Despite a different variety of malt and a very different method of production, that XX is a Fuller’s beer is made obvious by the aroma and tang of orange marmalade which assails you as you drink it.
Of the two beers, XX is the more immediately impressive — complex and strong, with a metallic “made with girders” sweetness and a bitterness which almost numbs the mouth. It is clearly related to 1845, but more sherry-like, and without the saltiness and taste of burnt raisins we associate with 1845. Perhaps we were expecting something Victorian to taste dirtier, somehow, like the aged beers we drank in Antwerp, but this isn’t an antique, after all: it’s a fresh, clean beer made using an old recipe.
Double Stout just didn’t excite us as much, although it is certainly delicious, and we’re looking forward to drinking ten more bottles before reaching a final decision. It’s also a beautiful looking beer, with one of those charming off-white coffee foam heads that big stouts sometimes have. The thing is, it’s really not so different from any number of other strong stouts on the market. For example, Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout or one of the stronger Guinness Export stouts would do much the same job. The point is though, as the label is at pains to make clear, that this wouldn’t have been an ‘imperial stout’ when brewed in 1893: 7.4% would have been a perfectly normal strength for a stout.
Now we need St Austell and other big family brewers to dust down their records, get Ron in for a day or two, and start doing the same thing. What better way to spice up the staid ranges these types of breweries seem to offer without compromising the sense of tradition they seem to value so much?