Critics of beer bloggers often say, ‘Free beer tastes better’, the suggestion being that samples from breweries get gushing reviews.
It is certainly true that the price you’ve paid for a beer changes your relationship with it. Having paid (with case discount and delivery) around £6 each for twelve 500ml bottles, we really, really wanted to like Fuller’s Imperial Stout.
Masters of ‘premium’ packaging, Fuller’s have given each bottle its own little box of majestic purple, glinting with inlaid silvery foil — pretty much how we imagine Queen Victoria’s coffin might have looked.
The beer slides into the glass absolutely black, with a fast-collapsing Rich-Tea-biscuit coloured head, announcing itself as Something a Bit Special.
We cannot, however, announce a transcendent experience on tasting it, or that we found any unexpected aromas or flavours — chocolate and espresso both present and correct.
What is striking is the beer’s almost ashy dryness, which brought to mind those completely unsweetened cooking chocolates of which you’re only really supposed to use a few shavings; or a dusting of cocoa powder; or perhaps the grit from the bottom of a cup of Middle Eastern-style coffee.
Once we got over the big black wall, we did spot something which reminded us of Irish cream liqueur, although that might have been suggested by the beer’s rather oily, creamy body.
As lightweights, we rather resent drinking a very strong beer (this one is 10.7% ABV) and being left with the feeling that a weaker one might have given us the same effect. If we had tried to guess the strength of this beer tasting it blind, we’d have said 7.5%, so that’s a mark against it.
On balance, though Fuller’s Imperial Stout is an excellent beer, it is not £6-a-bottle, 10.7% good. But perhaps future iterations will have more depth and complexity.
One of our best Christmas memories is of sitting in the splendidly Victorian Royal Oak, not far from London Bridge, drinking Harvey’s Imperial Stout, when, very obligingly, heavy snow began to fall outside. That’s probably why, when it came to thinking about which beers we wanted in the stash to see us through the bleak midwinter, our thoughts turned to the venerable Sussex brewer.
The great news is that, though IS (9%) remains the star of the show, the others (all 7.5%) are also excellent. They highlight the character of the slightly funky house yeast which adds complexity to what might otherwise be rather sickly-sweet beers.
By way of specifics: Christmas Ale (and this a compliment) could pass for a Fuller’s beer — fruity and round with plenty of orange peel and cherry character; while Prince of Denmark, billed as ‘dark ale’, is in export stout territory — all liquorice and cocoa under a thick brown head. Elizabethan Ale, first brewed in 1952, we’re still getting our heads round, but our first impression was very much ‘Yum’.
While shopping online, we also considered this twin-pack of mini-kegs from Adnams as a Christmas present to ourselves but it didn’t quite suit our plans. Have you spotted any similarly tempting packages?
The AK is an interesting beer in its own right: amber-brown, fairly bitter, and just a touch tart, with something of the rich tea biscuit snap about it. Along with Fuller’s Bengal Lancer, it is one of the most convincing impressions of a cask ale we’ve yet had from a bottle.
But, the main event? Wow. We’re devotees of Harvey’s Imperial Stout and once tried a well aged 1983 bottle of Courage. This beer stands up well to both of them. We wouldn’t hesitate to describe it as flawless — that is to say there were no ifs and buts; no hints of Marmite or margarine; or of anything to make us wrinkle our noses and say: “Good effort, but…”
How did it taste? Well, let’s have a droring first. There are a stock selection of words trotted out for strong stouts and here’s where Tsar Top sits (in our view) in relation to some of those, alongside other similar
Note that it’s not as big a beer as the ’83 Courage or Harvey’s IS, but is well balanced, and makes Sam Smith’s interpretation look a bit puny. It is a beer full of berries and cherries, rather than coffee or chocolate. The alcohol (all 10% of it) seems to hover over the surface, tickling the nose without burning. The aftertaste lasts forever, as does the sturdy milky-coffee coloured head. Brettanomyces is used in a secondary fermentation, we are told, though there are no obvious (offputting) ‘barnyard’ aromas as yet. Perhaps another year’s ageing would bring those out?
In short, when Ed brews another batch, we’ll be ordering a case.
Register of members’ interests: we got four packages of free beer last year. One lot was terrible and we wrote directly to the brewery with our opinions. Two other batches were nice enough (some Brewdog Punk IPA and some St Stefanus) but didn’t provoke any thoughts that would warrant a blog post. This is the first one that’s moved us to enthuse.
Do you ever avoid a special beer you’ve really enjoyed in the past because you have a feeling it just won’t excite you the same way second time around?
We have wondered why we haven’t got round to having a second bottle of Thornbridge’s St Petersburg Imperial Russian Stout and perhaps that was the reason, as we really did enjoy it last time, back when Thornbridge were up-and-coming and causing a buzz.
Fortunately, it didn’t disappoint, although we detected a more pronounced, pleasantly funky brettanomyces and tobacco character this time, reminding us of Harvey’s or even that 1983 Courage we enjoyed in Antwerp. Complex yet comforting, a perfect, slow-sipping Christmas beer, despite it’s tasteful label and reindeer-pun-free name.
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007