As beer launches go, the introduction of the new Fuller's version of Prize Old Ale was somewhat muted. With production restricted to 120 barrels, and supplies mostly limited to
its brewery shop and members of Fuller's Fine Ale Club, the Chiswick brewers decided not to roll out the red carpet. But for OLN readers the revival of this historic beer
deserves at least a little fanfare.
Prize Old Ale was created in the 1920s when a Yorkshire brewer took up a position at Gale's brewery in Hampshire. The strong beer (9% abv) became a connoisseur's favourite, and this ensured that the company kept the beer in its portfolio while similarly strong, bottle-conditioned beers elsewhere in the country
When the Campaign for Real Ale was founded to preserve brewing traditions in 1971, it was one of only five bottle-conditioned beers in regular production in the UK. Filtration and pasteurisation had taken care of the rest.
Gale force change
Gale 's persevered with POA until the day its new owner Fuller's closed
the doors in 2006.
Numbers were small and only specialist beer shops and Gale's pubs displayed the little corked bottles, but the beer was a part of the fabric of the company.
When the Fuller's removal men emptied the contents of the Horndean brewhouse, they took away the last ever brew while it was still undergoing its traditional long, slow ageing process. They installed it at Chiswick and allowed the maturation to continue.
This year, it was bottled. The bottles are bigger at 50cl, with a conventional cap instead of a cork, and the beer is livelier than drinkers have become
used to, but the repackaging heralds a positive future for this classic beer.
This new horizon for POA is indicative of how things have turned around in the bottle-conditioned beer market. From five beers in 1971, we are looking at well in excess of a thousand different "real ales in a bottle", as Camra now likes to call them, produced in the UK today. Most, of course, don't travel further than the brewery's own shop, but there's a good scattering of bottle-conditioned beers in supermarkets and major off-licences, courtesy of SIBA's direct delivery agreement with Thresher and other such arrangements between small brewers and the multiples.
The impetus for the bottle-conditioning revival has come from this small brewery sector. Micros have seen the bottle as a handy alternative to selling beer to the on-trade, where the grip of the pubcos
and their demands for discounted beer mean the market has tightened.
With elementary bottling equipment relatively cheap, and new outlets such as country shops, independent off-licences, farmers' markets and local restaurants there to be tapped into, they have added much to premium bottled ale.
Indicative of the revival of interest in such products is the presence of some major regionals in this field. As well as Fuller's, which also has 1845 and Vintage Ale in its bag, Shepherd Neame (1698), Greene King (Hen's Tooth), St Austell (Clouded Yellow, Proper Job, Admiral's Ale) and Wells & Young's have all invested in this market. In the case of the last, this year saw the launch of Young's Bitter and Kew Gold as bottle-conditioned beers to join the existing Special London Ale.
Wells & Young's director of marketing, said: "We see this as a new sector in
bottled ales - ' super
ales', which are derived from the highest quality ingredients and are bottle-conditioned . These beers are able to demand premium prices, which drive category value ."
Heavyweights join the ring
The major supermarkets have also taken a bite of the bottle-conditioned cake. Freeminer brewery produces beers for both the Co-op and Morrisons, while O'Hanlon's contributes a beer for Tesco.
Last August, Marks & Spencer joined the party, launching bottle-conditioned beers, from Woodforde's in Norfolk, Black Isle in Scotland, Cropton in Yorkshire and Vale in Buckinghamshire, as part of a drive to raise the profile of regional products.
It's been such a success they're adding three more to the range, from Wales (Conwy Brewery), Cornwall (St Austell) and Sussex (Hepworth & Co).
"We have been delighted with customers' reaction. They really seem to appreciate being able to buy these products," says the company's beer specialist Sue Daniels.
Nick Dolan, of Twickenham retailer Real Ale, works with M&S on sourcing the beers. "I am really excited about the future of the market," he says. "I believe that the general customer is now more aware than ever what a bottle-conditioned ale is. "
As for the famous five bottle-conditioned beers surviving in 1971, it's a mixed story. Guinness Extra Stout became Guinness Original , and Courage's Imperial Russian Stout was last seen sinking into the Baltic in 1993. Although Eldridge Pope gave up its brewing ghost in the
nineties, its world famous Thomas Hardy's Ale has been exhumed by O'Hanlon's, with great success. Even more encouragingly, Worthington's White Shield is enjoying a new lease of life under Coors.
bouncing back , and a thousand or more new friends on the shelves, it shows that bottle-conditioned beer has
flourished in the last three decades.
Jeff Evans is author of the Good Bottled Beer Guide.