Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling is in the latest line of northern comedians including Mark E Smith, Morrissey and Frank Randle (interviewed the first two but not the latter as he was dead before I was born, just thought I would slip that in)— he’s deadpan and slightly mocking, tells the odd rubbish joke and wears his authority with ease as if it were a jacket placed over his shoulders by a leery mate during a stag do before it becomes an exercise in aggression. He’s also one of the lads (the sensitive one at the back). However, unlike the chaps who told us how they wrote elastic man and that every day was like Sunday, he makes damn good beer and also wants to breaks through the boundaries of what we mere mortals think constitutes beer. And Fullers, god bless ’em, let him run riot.
In a room not far from the Hellenistic and hedonistic hive of the Great British Beer Festival, he takes us through a couple of years in the life of Vintage — along with Derek
Walsh Prentice (who didn’t open his mouth, but I reckon he still deserves a name check), these two Dr Who-ish or Wellsian beer time travellers go off on a mission to elucidate and encourage us all to indulge in a great escapade of brewing (‘the game is on’ as Holmes would have it).
Vintage Ale 2009 is the colour of a light-coloured sandy-ish horse saddle that has been hunted by several generations, has an alcoholic brew of a toffee nose (think brittle nut toffee), then on the palate torpedoes one below the water line with a massive marzipan, Çointreau Christmas cake icing sweetness and ferocity of flavour, before its dry and bitter and chewy finish.
Then we had Vintage Ale 2006 — a deeper chestnut in colour than 2009, a tone of brown/chestnut shade that you wouldn’t be ashamed to let your child wear if they fancied cords from Gap (and believe me they do). This was softer and less fiery in its alcoholic attack than 2009; orange notes were thrusting their way through and I thought in a moment of madness of booze-soaked raisins. ‘An interesting experiment in ageing,’ said John, ‘I want to explore time, put time back into making beer.’ As someone who spent three years picking over the ruins of the Romanovs and writing the odd essay about the rise of the NSDAP who am I to argue?
But we weren’t over and time was not done with us yet: next up was Brewers Reserve No 1, which if you want the empirical details has spent a year in bottle and 500 days in cask (Glenmorangie). It was buttery (think Chardonnay), fat, leathery, horse blanket-like, earthy — my notes say Orval with whisky (and I also asked about Brett). With our tummies waiting to be tickled we were then rolled onto Brewers Reserve No 2 (cognac cask) — there’s a sense of serendipity in the way JK gets the casks, it’s whatever is available at the time (as someone who once dabbled with The Diceman and the I Ching I like this sense of chance). This has a tighter orangey marmalade character on the nose. I’m thinking orange jelly, with a hint of white pepper in the background; it’s light and fruity, brisk and bracing, And as this first day of the GBBF comes to its natural end, all I can think about is the wood-aged 1890s porter that John has prepared for the autumn.