Fuller's Past Masters 1981 ESB

John ShearlockMay 19, '22
The Brits will tell you they’ve been making craft beer since way before it became fashionable - they just called it real ale. But then, of course, people have been making beer for literally thousands of years. Talk to the Mesopotamians in the fifth century BC and they’ll tell you they were making it then. They probably had a different name for it too. Names are just names and beer is just beer, but, the definition of what is now a craft beer is certainly an interesting one. 
I only mention all this as today’s beer is made with a recipe that was created back in 1981. Knowing this, we can open an interesting debate. Is it a craft beer now? Was it a craft beer when it was first made? And what’s more, would it be a craft beer if it were brewed by someone else?
Craft beer is defined by many with words like small, independent, innovative and non-mechanised. So, I feel like we should be ruling out our Fuller’s straight off the bat. These guys are big, I mean they’re owned by Asahi for heaven's sake. But, if you ruled out any craft brewer that has grown to medium or large scale production, then you’d be removing the title from the majority, the successful ones at least. Interestingly, Fuller’s were an independent family outfit (although quite a big one) until 2019, so a beer made by them in 1981 suddenly sounds a bit craftier. As you can see… things get complicated, quickly.
So does it taste like a craft beer? Well, that’s another rabbit hole of definition too. Should it taste hoppy, be over a certain ABV, carbonated to a certain degree or should it just taste like it was made on a small scale by an indie brewer - and well, what the hell does that taste like?? Of course the real question is simply… does it drink well? Let’s find out.
Boy, that nose takes me back. I grew up drinking Fuller's and there’s something to be said for that malt-forward, fruity, slightly bitter style with its oxidative caramel notes, ginger nuts and Jaffa Cakes. Gosh, they’re all there on the palate too. Beautiful mouthfeel, sweeter than some may like, but not in a heavy-handed way and flowing into a massive malty, chocolate and mocha finish, wrapped in those fruity hops once again.
It’s a great example of a traditional ESB, and it’s certainly a premium beer. It’s still brewed at the Griffin brewery by the Thames in London, which is a plus in our craft or not craft debate, but on a scale that certainly doesn’t sound crafty. However, if this beer were made this well by a small Indie brewery, we'd happily call it a craft beer.
There’s plenty of mass production, commercial beers out there for whom the title Craft does not sit well. But, there’s plenty like our ESB that also fall somewhere in between. As craft beer becomes more and more ubiquitous and we drink it on a larger scale, it's true that it is becoming more commercial and, as it does so, it is pulled further from it's original definition. It's probably time for a rethink on terminology, but until then... let's just keep drinking good beer.