Aurelius Interviews Fuller's
The story behind London's world classic brews
September 5, 2002
Written by Aurelius
Aurelius has scored a pair of interviews with the folks behind the great Fuller’s ales that many of us love not only here, but when we travel to London as well. Fuller, Smith & Turner has been in operation since 1879, though it is believed the site was used for brewing even before that. Most of their beers are widely available in the US at serious beer establishments, and even Chiswick Bitter has made it to North America via the Chicago Real Ale Festival.
This interview was conducted with Brewmaster John Keeling, Brands Marketing Manager David Spencer and Julie Knight of the Marketing Department.
Aurelius: What makes Fuller’s line of ales distinctive? What are your hallmarks?
John Keeling: Fuller’s do have a unique way of making beer. We are a mixture of both modern technology and traditional methods, e.g. we have traditional mash tuns but modern conical FV’s. This blend of old and new helps makes the beer distinctive.
We generally mature our beer for longer periods than must other British breweries but the biggest difference is our yeast. Fuller’s has its own yeast and that yeast contributes so much to making the beer distinctive.
Aurelius: Can you give us a short biography and your brewing philosophy?
John Keeling: I started out in the brewing industry as a 17-year-old at Wilson’s in Manchester, before leaving to study brewing at Heriot-Watt University. I joined Fuller’s straight from the Watt and have now been with Fuller’s 21 years. I became the Brewing Director three years ago.
Our brewing philosophy is really that of Fuller’s rather than any individual. Continuity is so important -- my predecessor Reg Drury was with Fuller’s 40 years. By working as a team, we have been able to develop a philosophy that is inbuilt into our brewing team and will outlive any individual.
That philosophy is essentially that there is a Fuller’s way to do everything and just because, for example, it is not the traditional method does not mean that it is not the best way for Fuller’s. We judge everything by results. If the beer tastes better, then we will change to the new method. Quality first, cost second.
We also recognize that there is a delicate balance between the brewer, his yeast, the raw materials he buys and the plant used to make that beer and that balance has to be maintained. Making beer is about biology and not chemistry; it is about brewers, not production managers.
Aurelius: Is there anything that your brewers would like to try out which is a little off of the beaten path?
John Keeling: I have become interested recently in the use of blending to produce different beers. I would like to mature our strongest beer Golden Pride 8.5% for over 12 months and then use it as a base ingredient for blending with younger beers of different strengths and ingredients. Blending was used this way but has fallen out of fashion probably due to cost.
Aurelius: The Vintage Ale line consistently draws good reviews, but the 1999 batch has drawn exceptional reviews from beer critics. What made that vintage special?
John Keeling: We did use a champion barley (Optic) and a champion hop (Fuggles) in this beer. We do vary the source of the ingredients (e.g., we used Scottish Golden Promise barley this year,) but we always stick to the exact same grist and fermentation formulas, etc.
I think all the batches have been very interesting beers and I personally have no favourite. However, if it is thought that 1999 is special, then I would guess it is either due to the Fuggles hop (which we rarely use), or it is because it was the first vintage brewed by a lady brewer (Georgina Young). Or maybe it was my first Vintage as the Brewing Director!
Aurelius: Which is your personal favourite Fullers brew?
John Keeling: My personal favourite is Chiswick Bitter.
Aurelius: To which of your brands do you feel that people should perhaps pay more attention?
John Keeling: Chiswick Bitter and cask ESB
Aurelius: What’s the perfect environment for a Fuller’s beer?
John Keeling: A beer festival surrounded by hundreds of happy drinkers!
Aurelius: Fuller’s is an august and legendary name in the industry. Can you give us a bit of history?
Julie Knight: In 1829, John Fuller joined the brewery that had been operating on the Chiswick site for over two hundred years. In 1879, Fuller Smith & Turner was founded by John Bird Fuller, Henry Smith and John Turner. Direct descendants of the founding families are still involved in the running of the company today. Fuller’s early marketing activities included the purchase of a hot air balloon, which was emblazoned with “Fuller’s Beers of Honest Repute”.
In 1903, the first steam lorries were purchased for the Brewery, by 1936 the last draft horse was retired. WWI caused a shortage of labour for the Brewery and for the first time Fuller’s began to employ women in the bottling plants. In WWII, Fuller’s Maltings were destroyed by German air raids, but the brewery escaped serious damage.
In 1959, London Pride received its first medal at the Brewers Exhibition in 1959.CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) was formed in 1971, aiming to ensure the survival of proper cask conditioned beer – the campaign has attracted 30,000 members. Fuller’s took advantage of this shift in public taste and has wooed members relentlessly.
ESB: CAMRA Beer of the Year 1978, 1981 and 1985. World Beer Championships, Champion Bitter 1997, 1998
London Pride: CAMRA BotY 1979.
Chiswick Bitter: CAMRA BotY 1989.
1845: Great British Beer Festival, Best Bottle Conditioned Ale 1998.
Aurelius: What considerations go into new beer offerings, and how often doyou roll out a new brand?
David Spencer: When we launch new beers we take into account a number of different factors. Chiefly, making sure that we produce beers that the public will enjoy and meet their specific needs (refreshment, flavour, ease of drinking, etc.) - brands which are distinctive, memorable and will enhance our reputation as one of the world’sleading brewers, and of course our route to market and profitability. On average we will launch between one and two new beers each year.
Aurelius: Your bottles are distinctive, especially to the American eye. Where does the style come from, and why has Fuller’s chosen it?
David Spencer: The bottles were developed by design agency Design House ofLondon in the mid-nineties. The style blends traditional features, such as proud shoulders and base and relief mouldings of the brewery crest, with a contemporary elegance. It is distinctive on shelf and, like the beers, has inspired many imitations.
Aurelius: Which brands are your best sellers? Can you describe/characterizeyour major export markets?
David Spencer: London Pride is our best selling brand by some distance. Itis one of the best selling premium ales in the UK. In the US our leading brands are ESB (the brand which invented a whole category in the USA) and London Pride, which between them account for around 80% of sales. We sell in kegs and bottles (16oz and 12oz). We also have a number of niche brands - 1845 (a bottle-conditioned beer named after the year Fuller’s was founded), IPA, London Porter, Summer and Winter Ales, and Vintage Ale. You’ll find us all over the States, but we’re particularly strong along both seaboards, in Texas and in the Midwest. Our other chief export markets are Italy andScandinavia, where London Pride dominates.
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