A $10 bottle of beer?


Why, yes, and a bargain at twice the price.

Fuller, Smith & Turner PLC is one of the two big independent London brewers. All of its beers are pretty good (as are those of the other independent, Young & Co.'s Brewery PLC), but Fuller has something extraordinary: Vintage Ale. Since 1997, Fuller's has brewed a relatively small batch (50,000 bottles in 2002) of this ale, using selected hops, barley and yeast, under the personal attention of the company's head brewer.

The results are superb: you taste the hops but it isn't too bitter, you taste the malt, but it isn't too sweet, the beer is high-octane (8.5 percent alcohol by volume) but you don't taste the alcohol, and since it is a bottle-conditioned beer, it does not have any of the chemically taste that come from preservatives. As with the cask -- or real -- ales you can easily buy in British pubs, a bottle-conditioned brew undergoes a secondary fermentation. This happens inside the bottle and makes it tricky to distribute and store, compared with the majority of bottled and canned ales you can buy in America. Most of these ales have shelf lives of approximately forever, but they lack the complex flavors that develop in real ales. Fuller's Vintage Ale is designed with the idea that you will mature it for a few years, similar to a good wine, and in this context, the price is not unreasonable (the bottle is a hefty 18.6 ounces).

Fuller's makes a big deal about this brew. The bottles are numbered and boxed, and a few find their way across the Atlantic. (In Britain, they are sold in Safeway groceries).

I bought one on a whim for an impromptu picnic in the summer of 2002, and I was sufficiently hooked to go back to the bodega and buy out their entire stock. The 1999 vintage is the top-rated strong ale on RateBeer.com. The 1998 got a nice write-up on Beer.com, and there is a short description of an unidentified year at Tastings.com. You can read the official Fuller's description of this ale on its website.

I haven't yet tried, but it can be ordered on-line and would make an excellent present (<---hint, hint) for anybody who likes British-style ale. One web site that offers it, at just over $10 a bottle, is Internet Wines & Spirits. In October 2005, I was also fortunate enough to stumble across it on tap (seasonally, in the autumn, half pints only) at The Spotted Pig,an authentic gastropub in New York's West Village.

Slightly less ambitious -- and less expensive -- than the Vintage Ale, is Fuller's 1845. It lacks the subtle interaction of the flavors in the Vintage, but this is one of the best bottled beers I have found. You can read about this one on Ratebeer.com and the Oxford Bottled Beer Database.

Another bottle-conditioned beer that I like is Morland's Hen's Tooth from Greene King PLC. It isn't quite in the class of the two Fuller's beers, but it only costs $2.99 a bottle in my local Pioneer supermarket, which seems to always have it, two favorable elements. The reviews on Ratebeer.com are mixed, but it looks as if many of those who didn't like it had the problem of overfermentation. I haven't had to deal with that because it never lasts very long in my fridge.


Ales in general, and bottle-conditioned brews in particular, are hard to find in America, where most of the beer is lager. The yeast used in lager sits at the bottom of the brew, while ales are top-brewed, and the rest of the production process also is different. Lager, which means "stored" in German, is produced and fermented at lower temperatures than ale. I have enjoyed lagers in Munich and Prague, where the beers are often unpasteurized and preservative-free, but most lager sold in America -- which is to say most beer sold in America -- is heavily processed and usually has far less flavor than ale. Some of the canned ales you can buy in America are good -- Boddington's and Ballantine come to mind -- but they are not the same as a properly maintained real ale.

The importance of real ale to beer afficionados is hard to overstate. Because it is fermenting while it is stored, cask and bottle-conditioned ale requires more attention from its distributors and retailers than do pasteurized products in which all of the yeast used in brewing has been removed. This means that real ale tends to cost more, pint for pint, but also that it resists mass marketing. If the stuff is  expensive, it will only be purchased by those customers who find it satisfying. If you're just thirsty, water or a beer without much flavor will do. One reason that real ale is best served at relatively warm temperatures -- in the mid 50s -- is so you can taste it. Beer chilled down near freezing doesn't taste like much of anything as it passes over your anesthetized taste buds.

Personal tastes in ales vary. Some people like the syrupy stouts and porters, others prefer pale or mild ales. I'm in the best bitter/strong ale camp myself. This is a market that is naturally fragmented and one that rewards excellence.

An added element is British public houses. If you are going to run a pub, you need to attract customers. Britain has a vocal movement that supports real ale, so many pubs offer it. You can usually tell if the ale is real because it is pumped by hand rather than forced out of the tap by pressurized gas. This is not necessarily the case, it is possible to serve real ale in several other ways, including under pressure from carbon dioxide, but then it has lots of bubbles, which many people (myself included) find too fizzy. Most pubs that offer cask ale use hand pumps, which signal that they are serving the real stuff.

Cask ale is shipped before the secondary fermentation is complete, so pubs that offer it have to make sure they sell it at the right time. They have to wait until it is mature but not so long that it goes bad, a window of opportunity that lasts about a month. Once the cask is opened, it must be used within a few days. Some pubs employ a cellarman, whose duty it is to manage the supply. Whether or not there is a full-time employee, somebody has to ensure that the ale is being served at the right time.

If you are going to the trouble of providing cask-conditioned ale, your pub has to draw enough of a clientele to sell enough brew to make the effort worthwhile. So pubs provide other useful services: they offer food, they provide a comfortable place to watch television or read a newspaper, they take in travelers (this is especially true outside of London). A British pub is like an American bar, coffee shop, and motel rolled into one. It usually orders supplies from its community, provides overflow accommodations, and employment, all important services for its locality.

The pubs might not exist without a flourishing ale industry to supply them, and without the pubs to buy much of the breweries' output, it is unlikely that there would be much in the way of real ale.

Britain recognizes the importance of its pubs. After a 1989 report by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission found a danger of big brewing companies dominating the pub industry, the Department of Trade and Industry promulgated the Beer Orders. These limited the number of pubs that a brewer could own (to about 2,000) and placed other restrictions on the big companies. In 2002, most of the provisions were revoked because the industry had drastically changed. Companies that specialized in pubs bought many of the properties formerly owned by the breweries, sidestepping the prohibitions on monopolies. There is a school of thought that says the monopoly threat has been replaced by a duopoly of brewers and pubcos.


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