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 Brettanomyceslambicus.
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.’
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.)
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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?