I remember very clearly my first experience of Gale's beer. The year was 1978 and I was holidaying with a group of friends in the Sussex town of Chichester, on England's south coast.
I don't recall much about the pub I was in, but my first pint there was truly memorable. The beer was Gale's BBB, a 3.7 per cent hand-pulled bitter, brewed a few miles away in the Hampshire town of Horndean.
What made the beer so memorable was its unusual, almost wine-like, tanginess. My first impressions were not altogether favourable - I thought the beer might have been slightly sour - but subsequent pints in other pubs confirmed the character I had detected was not only intentional, but the brewery's house signature.
It was also strangely addictive. Once I'd developed an appreciation for Gale's bitter many other beers seemed quite ordinary by comparison.
I now know that distinctive, funky character of Gale's beers was attributable to the brewery's multi-strain, top fermenting, ale yeast. Allegedly originally sourced from the Meux brewery in London, this old yeast strain had clearly made itself quite at home in the Horndean brewery's shallow, open-topped fermenters.
Open fermenters are not unusual in traditional English breweries but Gale's long-serving head brewer, Derek Lowe, knew the value of those at the Horndean brewery.
"Six of these vessels are unique. They were made from the rare New Zealand kauri wood in 1925," he noted, "and the following year the New Zealand government banned its export."
In 2005 Gale's was acquired by the London brewer Fuller's, which almost immediately announced plans to close the old Horndean brewery. But the prospect of the demise of yet another of England's old independent breweries did not pass unchallenged, and the UK's Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) immediately staged a high-profile campaign to save Gale's brewery.
Sadly their efforts, which included a petition with 6000 signatures, were to no avail: the historic Victorian brewery closed, ending more than 150 years of beer-making at the Horndean site.
Production of the Gale's beers - including the legendary Prize Old Ale - was shifted to Fullers' Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, London - with the exception of Gale's Bitter, which was discontinued.
Although it was a sad end to one of my favourite pints, I suspect the Fuller's brewers knew they couldn't recreate the beer's unique character in their modern fermenters.
At the time an English friend and fellow beer writer, Roy Bailey, reported the closure of Gale's brewery in his local Camra newsletter. In an email to me he expressed particular concern for the future of the old kauri fermenters.
"When I spoke to someone at the closed brewery the other day, he told me that the vessels were being removed and, in most cases, broken up for firewood," he said.
"The wood of one had been bought by Ringwood Brewery [in Hampshire] and used to clad a copper fermenter, while some of the rest was to be preserved in some unspecified way at the Hampshire museum in Basingstoke. He also stated that they were ‘talking to New Zealand', but did not specify to whom or for what. Presumably not the whole nation!" he added.
Derek Lowe, who spent the next few weeks decommissioning the old Horndean brewery, was equally fearful.
"What steps are being taken to preserve these rare and historic pieces of brewery history?" he asked. "It would be an act of the crassest vandalism if these priceless fermenters were broken up for firewood."
I agreed and wrote in a column at the time: "To lose six of only 14 intact kauri fermenters remaining worldwide would be a tragedy."
Sadly that's precisely what happened.
Now only one brewery in the world still has kauri fermenters: Speight's of Dunedin.
In 1945 Speight's commissioned the construction of 10 open-topped kauri fermenters. First used on 9th December 1946, they remained in use for around 40 years before being retired in 1988.
By 2005 - when Derek Lowe was decommissioning the old Gale's brewhouse - Speight's had restored four of its 10 kauri fermenters, or "gyles", as they are known at the Dunedin brewery. Another four remained intact but idle, one had a false floor installed to provide a viewing facility and the last one had also had its base removed, to accommodate a spiral stairway which now leads groups of visitors up from the floor below.
The restoration of Speight's kauri fermenters required a lengthy and ongoing commitment. Having dried out during years of disuse the vessels leaked, so the wood first had to be soaked to make it swell back to its original size and become watertight once again. Then, to prevent any possibility of bacterial contamination, the old wooden vessels were lined with a thick coating of beeswax.
But that wasn't the end of the job. Constant cycles of brewing and cleaning gradually abrade the wax coating and every two years, one at a time, the vessels have to be taken out of use and refurbished. Burning off the remains of the old wax with a blowlamp and then applying fresh wax in a cramped environment is tortuous work and the process takes a full month for each fermenter.
Why did Speight's persist with such old-fashioned and labour-intensive technology? With good reason: yeast responds differently according to its environment. The fermentation of ales, in particular, generates heat and the convection currents and pressures that build up in wide, shallow vessels are less than in modern, narrow, tall, conical fermenters.
In the last few years Speight's eight remaining kauri gyles have once again fallen into disuse, but Lion continue to maintain them and has expressed a desire to keep them in working condition on the off-chance they may be once again brought out of retirement - perhaps for special one-off or limited release brews.
In the meantime all we can do is raise a glass to the future of the world's last remaining kauri fermenters.
- The Marlborough Express