A Vintage Ale and a New Tradition

Summer is just a distant memory as we hurtle towards the end of the year. I’ve found myself spending more and more time indoors, hunkered down with blankets and other home comforts as the theme tune to Winnie the Pooh rings out from the telly. My two year old has decided the yellow “tubby little cubby” is his new favourite thing and so viewing the Disney film has become a daily ritual. I don’t mind so much because at this time of year there are plenty of little black rain clouds to avoid and as I find myself saying “tut tut looks like rain”, again, we need all the comfort we can get.

There comes a point each year when the winds change. Or, in A.A Milne’s words, “the East wind [has] traded places with the West wind”. After long, hot, muggy days, a freshness has blown in, a chill has become the norm and we’ve started to wrap up. As much as I loathe the cold weather, it’s inevitable the glorious nature of autumn will always fade into winter. The calendar is on a countdown and, much like Rabbit in the Disney versions of Milne’s stories, I must stock up and prepare for wintertime.

My preparations for winter are fairly simple; I’m lucky enough to live in a modern world where, unlike Rabbit, I don’t have to bring in a late harvest or bottle and preserve what I can and hope for the best. What I can do is make sure the boy has jumpers that fit, and a winter coat too. I make sure my boots don’t have too many holes in them, the car might get a winter service and, if it’s lucky, the gutter will have it’s downpipe cleared (ooh-er). The birds will always have their feeders topped up more than they do in the summer and the straggly patch of weeds, moss and grass lawn will have it’s final cut. But that lack of need for following a cyclic calendar entwined with the seasons for hopes of a good harvest, abundance and a good word put in to Mother Nature leaves a lack of tradition. Or does it? In my pre-Christmas lull, I’ve realised, it’s Vintage Ale season.

I’ve been buying Fuller’s Vintage Ale for a few years now, and it’s something I’ve come to look forward to. I guess, in a sense, it’s a seasonal harvest of a different kind. There’s always a sense of anticipation when November blows in and the produce changes on the shelves; will it be there? And then, yes, seeing the limited edition boxes, released at this time of year, all lined up in a row is a wonderful thing. It’s a complex beer which brings a simple pleasure. It may only be a beer, but it has also become a little tradition.

Fuller’s now famous Vintage Ale was first brewed back in 1997. The team had been brewing 1845, a strong ale sitting at 6.3% and the 8.5% Golden Pride, and knew stronger beers played to their, well, strengths. The annually released special has been brewed ever since, each newly released vintage being completely unique from the last by using different combinations of hops and malts.

Winnie the Pooh was Americanised in the hands of Disney and Fuller’s Vintage Ale has itself found influence from other shores. In this year’s (2019) iteration we have dry hop additions of New Zealand hop, Wai-iti, giving characteristics of mandarin, lemon and lime and New Zealand grown malts lending the beer a backbone of toast and, rather fittingly, honey. The hops lift the beer, cutting through the rich, smooth, malt driven profile. It’s tantalising enough to drink now, but this is a beer which has been designed to age, to be put away and revisited in years to come when, if stored correctly, the flavours will have developed creating an even better drinking experience.

My bottle was bought from Waitrose, plucked from the shelf with all the enthusiasm I would had it been the first ripened tomato or strawberry of the sunny season, for it is Vintage Ale season, a time for both comfort and joy when we can find it and in this classic beer I find both. This is a beer to pair with a comfortable seat, a warm blanket, a book or a movie and a few long moments of just doing nothing, because “sometimes doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.”