Fuller, Smith & Turner. Sounds like a rock band from the 80’s, doesn’t it? Except it’s much cooler than that. It’s the name of one of the foremost British brewers of traditional ‘real’ ale, and a benchmark for quality and innovation around the world.
I was lucky enough to pay them a visit recently at their Griffin Brewery site in Chiswick, London. From the moment you walk through their front door, you realise that even after nearly 200 years, they still feel like a family business. Everyone inside and outside were all so cheerful, and friendly to one another, myself included, that for a second I almost felt I was on the set of The Truman Show!
The purpose of my visit was three-fold; take a tour of the brewery, visit their sampling bar, and then have lunch in their own pub, The Mawson Arms, round the corner. And I’m happy to report that I managed to achieve all three objectives!
The brewery tour was everything a beer geek could dream of, and more, because it was also happening in a place that has actually made, and continues to make, beer history. From the milling room to the hop store, the brewers office to the mash tuns, and the fermenting vats to the kegging lines, this, no matter how often you see it, is as close as I come in adulthood to going to church. The delicious, rich smells; the steady, quiet calm of man and nature in perfect harmony; and the gentle hum of good things happening all around. Because of its reputation as a giant of the ale brewing world, the one thing that keeps surprising me whenever I’ve visited is how small some of the spaces actually are! The milling room, where the wonderful ‘grain bill‘ for each ale is mixed and milled, is little more than a bedroom, and the hop store not much bigger than a restaurant walk-in chiller. Another lovely feature of the brewery is the way that they have expanded and built a thoroughly modern brewery, shining stainless steel everywhere, around so much of their old, historic equipment which is all mostly still in place.
In this brewery, Fullers have produced winning ale after winning ale, year after year. Their first CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain winner, Extra Special Bitter (ESB), a 5.5% ‘winter beer’, has since won the prestigious award a further four times, along with two other Fuller’s ales, Chiswick Bitter and their flagship ale, London Pride. In fact, in the USA, ESB now denotes an entire class of beers, thanks to the distinct rich maltiness and high alcohol warmth of the original.
One particularly special ale that Fullers produce is an annual limited edition Vintage Ale. Since 1997, they have produced an individual, specially crafted ale with different malt and hops each year. They actually recommend that buyers lay them down for several years before drinking, as they continue to improve in the bottle over time. One very good reason to keep going back every year!