Tastings School - On a voyage of Discovery (Fuller's)

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On a voyage of Discovery (Fuller's)

London brewer Fuller's is launching innovative new beers while keeping its core drinkers happy. Dominic Roskrow reports

When London brewer Fuller’s decided to launch an all-new permanent cask ale to its core range for the first time in more than 20 years it was fitting that it called it Discovery.

For what it set out to do was to find the perfect hybrid beer – a beer with the properties that would appeal to a lager drinker while not alienating traditional cask ale drinkers in general and Fuller’s drinkers in particular.

The search for this Holy Grail of beer isn’t a new one, but Fuller’s set about it methodically and thoroughly. It was, recalls the company’s beer and brands director John Roberts, a slow process.

“I don’t know how many different hops we tried,” he says. “But it was a lot. We knew what we were trying to do. We wanted to move away from the traditional flavours associated with other Fuller’s brands. It wasn’t just a case of getting the right flavour profile but also creating a drink that appealed outside our core market.

“What we ended up with was a zesty and refreshing drink and that’s because of the inclusion of the Liberty hop.” Head brewer John Keeling says that the beer developed from the company’s normal product development process and the tasting group had taken its lead from what it saw as trends in the market.

“We had seen a trend towards lighter beers in terms of colour and taste,” he says. “We looked at what worked with our Summer Ale and took some of those characteristics. For instance, we used wheat as opposed to just our normal style of 100 per cent malted barley. And we went for the slightly citrusy grapefruit flavour.

“Most of all we wanted a beer that had drinkability so that drinkers would feel like a second after they’d had one.

“That’s why we looked at the American hop Liberty. Other brewers are experimenting with American hops and they have tended to favour Cascade but for us that was too dominant. We wanted something more subtle. And I think it is fairly unusual to combine Liberty with the Czech hop Saaz as we did. But for us it gave us subtlety and balance.” The way the hops are used is another factor on Discovery’s taste. Forty five kilos of Liberty are added to the boil just two minutes before the end, while six kilos of Saaz are put in from the start.

The resulting beer certainly seems to be turning heads. Discovery is a blonde beer that combines Liberty hops with Saaz and contains malted wheat and Carapils and Pale Ale malts.

It is best served chilled or at cellar temperature, is extremely palatable and, in a reverse of the trend towards stronger premium ales, has an ABV of just 3.9%, giving it legs as a session beer while positioned in the premium beer market.

For Fuller’s it is the latest step in a long term process to guarantee the future of British ale, and it’s an important one. And it might play a crucial role in re-energising a national British media who only seem willing to write about beer if it comes from another country or it presents itself in the most exclusive of niche markets. Take the example of British paper The Independent.

Under the headline ‘The bitter truth – we’re all wheat drinkers now’ the journalist reported how Leffe and Hoegaarten were now the drinks of choice for the British drinker. Figures showing double digit and up to 40 per cent growth year on year were published alongside industry figures for beer in general which showed the market flatlining or in decline.

All very neat and very interesting, except for one key aspect. The headline – with its piercing and condemnatory use of the words ‘bitter truth’ – is just plain wrong. It’s a point not lost on John Roberts.

“The wheat and Belgian beer sector is really interesting,” he says, “and it is growing, but from a very small base indeed. And those sort of statistics can be quite misleading.

“If you look at British ale the market has been declining but so have the number of brewers as they have been taken over by bigger companies. At the same time the larger regional brewers – ourselves, Charles Wells, Wolverhampton & Dudley, Greene King – have got stronger and stronger.

So while the market for the likes of Leffe and Hoegaarten is indeed growing, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a healthy situation for the British brewing industry.

“Also we’ve got a triple cobra head in some pubs with Hoegaarten on one side, Leffe on the other, and our Organic Honey Dew beer in the middle – and the Honey Dew is outselling the other two.” Products such as Honeydew and Discovery provide ample proof that companies such as Fuller’s are able to combine the very best of British brewing techniques with a modern and progressive approach to its industry.

The word ‘modern’ is a dangerous one because by definition it upsets the traditionalists.

But for a company such as Fuller’s a modern approach is essential. Walk around the Chiswick brewery and it’s a mix of old and new, and the company hasn’t been shy about spending money if it means that its end product is the better for it.

“Our next investment is a new state of the art kegger that’s got a robot on the end of it,” says John Keeling. “But my job is to make the best Fuller’s beer possible and if this helps me do that, that’s good enough for me.

“The idea of modern brewing techniques has got a bad press because too often they have been introduced as a method of reducing costs and that’s not the case here. And it’s also been tougher on regional brewers because the same criticisms have not been applied to microbreweries when they have used new methods.

“In our case introducing modern techniques has cost us a great deal of money and we have done that to enhance the quality of the beer and made it more consistent. It wouldn’t have made any sense for us to spend that sort of money if it didn’t improve the beer.” He points to the issue of consistency as an example of how the company has adapted to the demands of the market place. It’s worth remembering that even 10 years ago buying a pint of cask ale was very much a hit and miss affair.

No matter what condition the brewer sent it out in, it was at the mercy of the retailer who may or may not have treated it properly.

In the last few years hard work by the likes of the British Institute of Innkeeping and Cask Marque alongside other trade bodies has done a great deal to ensure that the pub licensee is presenting ale in its best guise.

Nevertheless, much of the investment Fuller’s has made in recent years has been to make this process easier for the publican.

“We think out beers are more robust than many others,” says Keeling. “And that means it can take more mistreatment than some other beers. It has been designed to be more consistent what ever the process.” He points to the way the company changed its policy on hops in the cask as an example. Originally dry hops were added to the cask before it was sent out to the pub outlets.

But traditionally that created huge problems.

“Over a period of time the effect of those hops on the beer changed its flavour, so that over the natural life of a cask the taste of the beer wasn’t consistent,” he says.

“The hops took up space in the cask so there was a high level of wastage. It made settling the beer more difficult, again affecting the taste. The yield from the hops was poor and because they weren’t sterilised it was possible for them to introduce bacteria and cause exploding casks.

“So we decided to remove two thirds of the hops from the cask and add them to the beer in storage tanks in the brewery. They’re put in a ‘hop pillow’ and added for a period of time with an arouser to move the beer through the hops and maximise the flavour from the hops. This has actually enhanced the flavour while the third of hops added in the cask guarantee that the aroma is still there.” According to John Roberts, such innovative approaches alongside the development of new brands are the best way to ensure that the company stays competitive in to the future.

“It’s a balancing act,” he says. “Of course we’re not going to muck around with the taste of London Price or the special brands such as ESB or 1845. We’re very proud of their position in the lives of our core drinkers. Indeed, we put a lot of time and effort in to making sure that a brand such as Pride is served in perfect condition and there can be no doubt that in recent years there has been a general rise in standards. So much so that we’ve recently acquired some land next to the brewery and are building a centre of excellence so that we can run cellar management courses to ensure that the quality angle is maintained.” For Fuller’s the balancing act between established and new, modern and traditional is the pathway to the future. It has extensive distribution of its bottled products, which are unquestionably some of the finest in the sector.

And the new draught beer launching alongside existing favourites suggests that the company may well be winning over new drinkers. Early anecdotal evidence suggests two out of 10 pints of Discovery are being sold to standard lager drinkers.

“Without doubt this move towards premium drinks and the number of people interested in finding out about new beers makes where we are an exciting place to be,” he says.

“You’ll always have the lads who want to buy a few cans of beer for the barbecue or to watch the football on television with, but equally there are those who on another day may only want one or two beers and will look to try something new and perhaps more premium. The skill of it is appealing to both.” John Keeling agrees, and says that to do that successfully brewers must be prepared to change.

“If you consistently do the same thing time and time again then what you will end up with is something that is inconsistent,” he says somewhat contradictorily. “Beer is organic and won’t always act the same way. And in order to make sure we’re putting out the best product possible, we’ve got to always be prepared to change.”

History

Pre 1650 Brewery founded at Chiswick, West London
1829 John Fuller joins the brewery
1845 John Bird Fuller, Henry Smith and John Turner found Fuller, Smith & Turner
1872 John Fuller dies and son George inherits his share of the business
1894 Company opens the Drayton Court Hotel
1894 First off licence opened. In all the company will finally have 60 of them
1909 Purchase of the Beehive Brewery in Brentford
1929 Fuller’s becomes private limited company
1975 Modernisation/redevelopment programme begins
1978 ESB wins CAMRA’s beer of the year for the first time
1979 London Pride wins CAMRA’s beer of the year for the first time
1989 Chiswick Bitter wins CAMRA’s beer of the year for the first time
1995 Launch of 1845, a bottle conditioned beer
2000 Sale of 60 wine merchant outlets to Unwins for £7.5 million. Launch of organic beer, Honey Dew
2005 Launch of blonde beer Discovery