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Everyyear I buy four or five bottles of Fuller’s Vintage Ale when it’s released. There’sone to drink fresh and the others to snuggle together at the back of the beercupboard. I’ve got no plan for when I’m going to open them but going to theFuller’s 15-year flight of Vintage Ales will probably push back theto-be-opened-on dates that aren’t-yet stuck to those claret boxes in mycupboard.

Therecipe for Vintage Ale changes a bit each year – different hops, different malt– but they remain similar in colour, bitterness and ABV. I love about theVintage Ales is how each one tastes different each time you try it; it makesthem always interesting as sometimes they taste amazing while other times theyseem reluctant to give away much, going through peaks and troughs. It alsomeans from bottle to bottle things are different. Here’s how the bottles I hadwere tasting last week...

2011.Three months off the bottling line. Cointreau, pepper, peach. Fresh hops andburnt sugar. Sweet first, dry bitterness to end. Love the freshness in this.

2010.Dried cherry plus orange and marmalade. Noticeably reduced bitterness from2011. Little sherry, marzipan and almond.

2009.Bitter orange, vanilla, almond. Brown sugar adds a sweet taste. Subtlecarbonation is nice. Feels in a transition between new and old; it’s gettingthere.

2008.Blackberry, cherry and a fragrant spiciness which is like rooty, orangyturmeric and coriander. Really nice complexity to it (‘what is that flavour?’) whichmakes you go back for more.

2007. Nothing jumps out the glass in aroma orflavour – it’s shy and not forthcoming. Seems to be asleep right now. Give itsome time.

2006.Rich, crackery body which is going savoury. There’s a marmalade bitterness butit’s not very orangey. Like 2007, not much is going on at the moment. Try againlater.

2005.Smells older suddenly. Sherried raisins and dried cherry. A definite sweetnesswhich seems to lift everything. The finish remains dry. This is more like it –time is having its impact.

2004.Cherry brandy. The bitterness is more perceptible and the carbonation is lower.Not overwhelming in any flavour but it’s tasting excellent for its age.

2003.Two takes at this one as the first bottle was a little musty like second-handshirts. Second bottle was like Christmas pudding – figs and brandy. Shows howdifferent it can be from bottle to bottle.

2002.One of the best we had; one of the most interesting. Immediately it smells likefresh grain sacks. Then there’s some perfume which is backed up with a floralflavour. Cakey, fruity and still tasting so fresh – the perfumy hops are reallypervasive. Complex and wonderful.

2001.Ribena and raspberry pips burst out the glass. This was probably my favouriteof the flight with no signs of oxidation, a simple sweetness, a dry finish andthat gorgeous fruitiness.

2000.Oaky aroma, some raspberries, vanilla and sponge cake – a little like arcticroll. So complex, so interesting. The last three bottles have all beenstunning.

1999.Less aroma than the last two bottles but loads of flavour: full bodied, smoothsweetness, bitter tea, some sherry. Loads going on but restrained andinteresting.

1998.You’d never know this was 14 years old as it’s aged so well. Complex but notchallenging, smooth and clean but bitter and dry. Incredible depth of flavourto it.

1997.The original Vintage Ale. Lots of fruit still comes through and there’s littlesign of oxidation. It’s rich and big and the bitterness lingers but it lacks thepunch of those a little younger.

Aflight of 15 Vintage Ales and all so different yet so clearly from the samefamily. Some of these have aged wonderfully, some less so. It’s hard to thinkthat some could ever taste better while it’s exciting to think that others willdefinitely taste better soon (2006 and 2007 need to wake up). The best of thesestood out as some of the best beers I’ve ever tasted; the fact that some were10 years old is even more amazing.

Ilove to taste how these beers develop and change over time and I’m fascinatedby that process. Before the tasting Fuller’s showed us some numbers on how thebeers went into bottle compared to how they are now. For me, the mostinteresting thing on these lists was how the bitterness changed: they alldropped by around 25% and this occurs within the first 12 months. But wheredoes the bitterness go? It doesn’t just jump out of the bottle... The sugarsalso change with complex sugars turning into less complex sugars which causesflavour change. These simple, fermentable sugars then kick on further action inthe bottle.

Thistasting was the last time that all the Vintage Ales made will be openedtogether. If you’ve got any 1998 and 2002 stashed away somewhere then there arevery few of these left anywhere, so you’ve got some seriously rare bottles. Thebest I tasted were from 2000, 2001 and 2002. They are perfect examples of howwell beer can age. NowI just need to work out how long to let the ones I’ve collected last...