On Friday 25 January 2019 the beer world was ROCKED by the announcement that Japanese booze giant Asahi had bought Fuller’s brewing business for £250 million. Social Media frothed like a pint of London Pride forced through a sprinkler, while beer experts scurried to keyboards and radio stations to deliver their verdicts on the takeover.
Exactly one week later were due to meet up on a working trip to London. Should we use this opportunity to delve deeper into the story? What would be our take on the takeover? Who would be the winners and losers? After pondering these questions for a few seconds we decided to simply drink the beer instead, so planned a hunt for six products from Asahi’s new portfolio to see how they all compared before the businesses were properly integrated.
When the day arrived, the South West was buried under a foamy white head of snow. While I was able to battle the blizzards and safely get to Frome train station, Rich was less fortunate in his Alpine dwelling on the edge of Bath and remained trapped in his house like a wasp in a glass of cider – angrily thrashing at the walls trying to escape while everyone else is shouting “you’re better off where you are.” So I went on a frosty beer hunt alone…
Pilsner Urquel, 4.4%
Many of those who are unconcerned about Asahi’s ownership of Fuller’s point to the fact that Pilsner Urquel, the world’s first lager, has been produced to the same high standards for years. I cannily arranged a mid-afternoon meeting in the Argyll Arms, opposite Oxford Circus tube station, where the Czech lager was on tap and ordered the first glass of it I’ve had for years.
The beer had loads of flavour, with the light grain of the malt and the moreish pepper of the hops working perfectly in tandem. You can pick any classic lager descriptor and put a tick by it: Clean? Yes. Fresh? Definitely. Crisp? Absolutely. A well rounded glass of refined refreshment with enough of a bitter finish to induce a satisfying ‘ahhhh…’
Meantime, London Pale, 4.3%
We’ve always liked Meantime’s beers yet are rarely drawn towards them in a pub, so on the occasions we order one of their brews it feels like we’re rediscovering them all over again. After my meeting at the Argyll Arms I stayed around for one more drink and was joined by a Finnish chap* nursing a pint of Siren’s Broken Dream. If I wasn’t on this specific beer drinking mission I would’ve ordered this rather than anything by Meantime, but I diligently stuck to the task and opted for a London Pale instead.
This was another deliciously refreshing beer. But whereas Urquel’s Pilsner had the crisp, clean flavours of a beer that has been lagered to perfection, this pale ale had the fresh vibrancy of youth: bright and breezy with the citrussy zest of American hops, a little bit sweet and sticky, and an earthier bite of bitterness at the finish. Perfectly enjoyable for a late afternoon drink (although I still hankered after that Broken Dream).
Asahi Super Dry, 5.0%
Rich’s research led me to the Bloomsbury Tavern near Tottenham Court Road for an Asahi Super Dry, but the pub had none. Not wanting to waste a trip to a decent pub I had a swift glass of Angelo Poretti Originale – a rather lifeless lager with bread and peach flavours that did little more than emphasise how good the earlier beers were. On the way to my next pub I passed an All Bar One which did boast Super Dry among its line-up. This turned out to be my least favourite pub of the day; the least favourite beer on my hit list; and the most expensive beer.
It’s easy to be a beer snob about mass produced lagers like Asahi’s, but they’re hugely popular and, in many ways, it takes more brewing skill to get them to the same standard all over the world than it does to produce a one-off porter stuffed with cocoa nibs in a railway arch. However, the high fizz and low flavour isn’t my thing and, although it was easily drinkable, without any off-notes to grumble about (and even a hint of grass and lemon-pith flavour at the finish) I can’t imagine ordering it again on many occasions.
Fuller’s London Pride, 4.1%
Back in the early 1990s London Pride was a rare beast at our favourite Somerset pubs, so when it showed up as a guest ale it was something of an event. Over the years it started appearing more regularly – and in a few pubs as a permanent addition – although the quality seemed a little less consistent, which could’ve been due to it being less well kept in some of the crustier boozers we frequented.
More recently, getting a decent pint of beer is a lot less challenging than it was so we don’t have to rely on the likes of Fuller’s for quality, although we still drink it fairly regularly, particularly when we’re in London, and reckon it tastes as good as now it has ever has.
My Pride at the Jack Horner’s pub on Tottenham Court Road was spot on, with caramelised orange just sweetening up the malty backbone while wafts of Fuller’s yeast make it, to me at least, smell like the quintessential English bitter. I could’ve easily sunk into this for a long session but there were more beers to find…
Dark Star, Hophead, 3.8%
Whenever we’re in London we aim to get back to Paddington in plenty of time for the journey home. At least half an hour gives us the opportunity to load up on train snacks and ride the escalator to Fuller’s station pub, the Mad Bishop and Bear. The beers are always in top condition and more often than not it’s Dark Star’s Hophead we make a beeline for (which transferred production to Fuller’s Chiswick brewery last year) and is one of the best contemporary cask ales around.
To maintain that tradition I ordered a Hophead, along with a plate of curry, to see me on my way and it was as good as ever. As you would expect from the name it has a lot of hoppy character, with Cascade’s grapefruit bitter tones enough to kill off any other lingering flavours of London that might be loitering around the taste buds. It’s not particularly strong and the malt is light, but it’s much more than a hop showcase: a quaffing, glugging, swigging triumph that always makes me want to squeeze another in before legging it to the train.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s we made regular trips down to Portsmouth, doing little more there than watch football and drink beer (with the occasional round of pitch and putt). Our most frequently visited pub was The Fifth Hants Volunteer Arms where we would drink almost exclusively Gales HSB**, a unique, old fashioned type of fruity, nutty English bitter that gave us equally unique hangovers. By the time Gales business was bought by Fuller’s in 2005 our Pompey trips became less frequent and, when we were in town, the pubs we visited became more varied – not least because many of our local friends grumbled that HSB wasn’t the same since the buyout. When Gales ales did show up at the bar we usually downgraded to Seafarer to avoid those hangovers.
Unfortunately I didn’t encounter any Gales pump clips on the trip to London so we’ll have to revisit those beers at a future date, hopefully before the Asahi effect kicks in, to get a proper taste for how the beer has been faring under Fuller’s stewardship. And we look forward to revisiting Fuller’s other beers, praying that their new owners brew them to equally impressive standards as I found them this time around.
*He wanted to know if I knew anywhere that sold galoshes. I didn’t.
**Horndean Special Bitter, named after Gales Horndean brewery which closed not long after Fuller’s bought the business