Another part of our (hopefully) year-long video project, A Year of Beer. looking at the idea of beer and seasonality - how different styles of beer are more appropriate to different seasons, weathers, festivals and so on. There will also be a bit of beer and food matching thrown in because, hell, we love to eat as much as we love to drink.
This week: Gale's Prize Old Ale
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Gale's Prize Old Ale
Yeast is a funny thing. You think that when it comes to brewing, it's either cervisiae, carlbergensis or some lambic-style muck floating around in the air. But it turns out that there is a mind-boggling variety of strains of all of these yeasts. Just have a look at a home-brewing website for an insight into the variety of clones and whatnot available.
Fuller's purchased Gales a few years ago, and with it inherited an estate of pubs and a dilapidated brewery. All reports suggest that there was no way to make reliably drinkable beer at Gale's. Fair enough, although there was one classic, world-class beer produced there, at least according to Michael Jackson's Pocket Beer Companion: Prize Old Ale (POA).
The trouble is, POA was a wildly variable beer. It was certainly iconic, in its little square-shouldered bottle. But reliable? Hell no; I've drunk bottles that have been anything from "profound" to "buggered". The best ones have tasted of prunes, armagnac and history. The worst may as well have been a cup of dilute vinegar; really, that bad. Most of this is a result of the ancient brewery, and certainly some of it will be down to the ageing of each vintage in a huge unlined wooden fermenter. At it's best, there was a pronounced influence from a host of what is euphemistically called "barrel flora" - basically bacterial character emanating from the wood. At worst, the beer was spoiled, lactic, and unfit for sale, although sold it was.
Sold wholesale, in fact: Fuller's bought the brewery a few years ago. They have been tinkering with Gale's flagship beer ever since, the final batch having been tankered away from the old brewery and kept at Fuller's. Commendably, Fuller's are mixing new batches of POA with some of the last batch, to ensure that the character is maintained. It works; there is a pronounced barrel flora note to the new brew, sharp fusty edge and all.
Except, it isn't quite the same. The beers are reprimed with Fuller's yeast on bottling. Nothing wrong with that, as the majority of the POA character is preserved via deliberate bacterial infection with the last original batch. But remember how I said that there are a mind-boggling variety of yeasts earlier? Well, the house yeast used for bottling POA lends it the spicy gingerbread character that I enjoy in Fuller's beers, but it adds a new accent to POA. It's very nice, but a slight twist on the original recipe. Of course, I've had enough stale, sour and otherwise knackered bottles of the original version to welcome Fuller's intervention, but it's a bit like seeing an old friend with a new tattoo; it's part of them, but you just can't help but notice it.
But enough; discussions about authenticity are tedious, and anyway, nostalgia's not what it once was. The new Prize Old Ale is a slightly different beast, but there's no doubt that it has the complexity and body to age like the old version. Just as beer from the conditioning tank is better than pasteurised bottled beer, so our new version of POA is more complex than most beers out there. For that, for the preservation of the unique mix of barrel flora, that part of living history that will now never die, we should be grateful.