Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout, 1970

Last night we sat down and, with due reverence (radio off, notebooks out) drank a bottle of 47-year-old Barclay’s (Courage) Russian Imperial Stout. And it was great.

The last very elderly bottle of RIS we got to try was at the specialist cafe Kulminator in Antwerp where we paid something like €18 for a relic from 1983. This new old bottle was found by Bailey at a car boot sale in Somerset and cost a much more reasonable £1.50.

The seller was an elderly bloke who had worked at Courage in the 1960s and 70s and said, ‘A mate of mine called me down to the cellars in the brewery at Tower Bridge one day where he’d found a stash of this everyone had forgotten about. He used to drink a bottle every morning before his shift started.’ This bottle, he said, was part of his own employee allowance that he’d never got round to drinking.

The cap of our bottle of RIS.

Having been stored who knows where for almost half a century, and then left on paste tables in the sun for who knows how summer boot sales, we didn’t have high expectations for our bottle’s condition. There was the usual hesitation when the time came to apply opener to cap — should we save it? But the answer to that question is generally ‘No’, and even more so when nuclear missiles are whizzing about on the other side of the world. So, one, two, three, and…

There was a smart snap and an assertive ‘Shush!’ Pouring it was easy enough, the yeast having fused with the bottle over the course of decades. We were left with a glass containing about 160ml of beer topped with a thick, stable head of sand coloured foam.

The aroma it threw up was immense, almost sneeze-inducingly spicy, and unmistakably ‘Bretty’.

The foam in the glass.

Oddly, perhaps, the Brett didn’t seem to carry over into the taste, or at least not in the ways our fairly limited experience (mostly Orval and Harvey’s take on RIS) has led us to expect. It wasn’t dry or challengingly funky. But perhaps it was simply that it was in balance, blended and melded with the rock solid bitterness.

The texture was like cream, the taste like the darkest chocolate you can imagine, with no hint of the sherry character we’d assumed was all-but inevitable in old beers. It was just wonderful — more subtle and smoother than Harvey’s, the nearest comparison, and overwhelmingly deep.

What amazed us most was how fresh it tasted, and how alive it seemed. If you’d told us it was brewed last year, we wouldn’t doubt you. (Disclaimer: such is the dodgy provenance of the bottle, we can’t say for sure it wasn’t brewed last year.)

Two hours later, Boak sighed dreamily: ‘I’m still tasting it.’

Beer as experience indeed.

Magical Mystery Pour Bonus: Tempest Mexicake

Tempest Mexicake in the glass.

Tempest’s 11% ABV chilli-infused imperial stout, Mexicake, didn’t immediately appeal to me, because it sounds like the kind of beer people invent for their ‘Hur, hur, dumb hipsters’ jokes. But, wow, was it good.

This is a kind of Magical Mystery Pour deleted scene. Dina, you might recall, was our first selector more than a year ago, and very kindly sent us this and another beer as part of a Christmas gift box last December.

There are beers to which you respond intellectually, and those for which you just have a pash. This one made me go wobbly: ‘Blimey!’ was the only note I managed for the first few minutes. When I tried to expand on that, still reeling, I came out with I now know is called a malaphor: ‘That ticks a lot of my buttons.’

Then I said ‘Mmmmmmm’, three times before my brain engaged.

It was black with a dirty brown head, like something that might leak from the engine of one of those spiky cars in a Mad Max film. It felt dense, syrupy and velvety, and tasted like treacle. The chilli was subtle, almost possible to confuse with bitterness in the muddled wiring of the brain, and really worked. As it warmed up I began to think more of chocolate and vanilla but, really, there were lots of different flavours bouncing around. It might be easiest just to say, ‘It tastes of everything.’ (Except oddly, and thankfully, the advertised cinnamon.)

This was proof that big beers can also be perfectly balanced. Delightful. Bring me another!

Too Fancy to Drink: Gadd’s Russian Imperial Stout

These two bottles have been sitting on the shelf since March 2015, throbbing with sinister energy like the crate containing the Ark in the first Indiana Jones film. Last night, we decided to vanquish them.

They are non-identical twins — the same base beer (a 12% ABV historic homage) with two treatments, one aged in bourbon barrels, the other given a dose of Brettanomyces lambicus.

We didn’t buy these but we weren’t sent them by the brewery, either: when he worked at Beer Merchants, Phil Lowry snuck them into one of our orders as a bonus. His advice at the time was (a) to be careful with the Brettanomyces-spiked version and (b) to try blending them.

Even without any chilling Brett, as we’ll call him, was no trouble at all. He hissed but didn’t gush, and gave us a thick, steady caramel-coloured foam. It smelled exactly like Harvey’s Russian Imperial Stout, which is perhaps not that surprising, and in our book a high compliment.

‘We should put the other one in a different glass so we don’t get them mixed up. Use the St Bernardus one. Because Bernard. Bernard Matthews. Turkey. Wild Turkey.’

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QUICK REVIEW: Thornbridge Eldon

We popped one bottle of this 8% ABV bourbon oak imperial stout into our recent Thornbridge order on a whim and drank it as a full stop to the weekend.

It’s a thick black beer with a dense coffee-coloured head. (See above.)

Kevin Eldon.
Actor and comedian Kevin Eldon after whom the beer is named. (By Christopher William Adach under Creative Commons.)

Expecting something like whisky-flavoured rocket fuel we were pleasantly surprised on tasting it to find a beer that pulls off the ultimate trick: being deep and complex, and tasting its strength, but with subtlety and restraint.

Up front, there’s an obvious vanilla note and just enough suggestion of bourbon to have made it worthwhile including in the headline. The texture on the tongue is so luxurious that it made us want some churros for dipping. The over-riding flavour is a gritty hard char, like licking coal, but that’s perfectly in balance with the sweetness.

If we can fault it it’s because the Thornbridge house character these days is a kind of clean precision which, while it works for many other styles, leaves this feeling perhaps a bit too polite. At £2.65 it’s not hugely more expensive than Guinness Foreign Extra and is quite a bit better (we love FES but it can be a bit demerara-sugary and one-dimensional) so we reckon it passes Ed’s test but, if push came to shove, we’d probably put Harvey’s filthy Imperial Stout ahead. (A fifty-fifty blend of Eldon and Harvey’s might be even better…)

IKEA construction instructions.
IKEA’s best-selling vegetable storage cabinet after which the beer is named.

In summary, Eldon is a classy, rich, interesting beer from the Fortnum & Mason of British craft breweries. Give it a go if you get the chance, especially if you prefer clean to dirty.

It’s actually named after Eldon Hole, by the way, despite our silliness, and IKEA don’t make a vegetable cabinet called ELDON as far as we know.

Session #108: Snowed In (Or Not)

This is our contribution to the 108th beer blogging session hosted by Jon at The Brewsite, with the topic ‘Snowed In’.

Britain has a pretty tame climate and snow is sufficiently rare that, when it does fall, the economy grinds to a halt as everyone reverts to childhood.

Where we live now, Cornwall, is even milder, with warm winters and cool summers. We never see frost, let alone snow, and even when it does snow up country it doesn’t seem to push past the Tamar.

What we do have is rain. Rain and gales.

Weather in which you can go to the pub as long as you don’t mind getting drenched and battered by the wind; as long as you don’t mind sitting there in wet clothes steaming like an old sock, dripping onto the floorboards; and as long as you don’t mind getting battered again on your way home. And, you know, all of that can be rather pleasant in a masochistic kind of way: there’s a cosiness attached to drinking a pint while items of street furniture stampede around town under substitutiary locomotion and the sea invites itself over the harbour wall in great chunks.

Waves crashing over the sea wall. (Animated gif.)

But we don’t usually drink anything special — there’s no imperial stout or barley wine in pubs in these parts anyway — though maybe it does nudge us away from the chiming brassiness of hops and towards beefier, browner bitters.

When it’s really bad, as in dangerous, as in batten-the-hatches and hope that’s not your roof tile shattering on the pavement, as in search and rescue helicopters overhead… Then we find ourselves huddling by the fire with Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Adnams Tally Ho or Harvey’s Imperial Stout.

They’re the beer equivalent of a warm blanket.