Harvey’s: Christmas in a bottle

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

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.

Their recently tarted up online store offers a mixed case of strong beers with a ‘lucky dip’ approach, i.e. you get what they’ve got in. We ordered one with fingers crossed hoping for at least a couple of bottles of IS and (woop!) got six, and the same of Prince of Denmark, Elizabethan Ale and Christmas Ale. All are in neat little 275ml bottles, perfect for a session with the mince pies.

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?

PS. We’ve never received any freebies from either Harvey’s or Adnams — not even a Christmas card, tangerine or walnut — and paid for the selection box above from our own pocket money.

Strawberries, cherries and an angels kiss in spring

When Ed from the Old Dairy Brewery noticed us getting excited about the return of Courage Imperial Stout, he dropped us a line asking if we’d be interested in trying his interpretation of the same recipe. The answer, of course, was yes.

That’s how we ended up with a bottle of Tsar Top and (as a bonus) two bottles of AK 1911, brewed to a recipe unearthed by Ron Pattinson.

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

A chart comparing flavour profiles of Imperial Stouts.

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.

Horselydown Denied

Anchor Brewery building, Southwark

As Des de Moor points out, beer geeks got very excited last year when news broke that Wells and Young’s were to start brewing Courage Imperial Russian Stout again.

We’re still sulking that the first brew disappeared to the states, except for a few bottles sent to beer writers and industry types.

What we find particularly frustrating, however, is that it’s possible to disembark from a boat on the south bank of the Thames not far from the building which still bears the words ANCHOR BREWHOUSE HORSELYDOWN; to walk past the site of the old Barclay Perkins brewery; and to a Young’s Pub with a view of St Paul’s Cathedral, without finding one drop of IRS.

London is simultaneously spoiled for beer, and oddly neglected — out-of-the-way locations are increasingly stuffed with craft beer bars while more traditional breweries use their flagship locations to sell burgers and Peroni.

If you want to drink a historic interpretation of imperial stout in Southwark, Harvey’s at the Royal Oak is your best bet. Plenty of other British brewers are also selling bottled beers inspired by Courage IRS, including the Old Dairy Brewery whose Tsar Top is based directly on a historic recipe.

Awkward second date

Detail from the label of St Petersburg Stout (via Thornbridge website)

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.

Beers from beyond the grave

It’s getting easier then ever to buy and drink beer brewed to specific historical recipes and to get at least a sense of what beer tasted like before the 1970s.

Here’s a list of some notable beers which are recreations of specific beers based on recipes from the archives. We’ve also included a couple of beers which, although perhaps not exactly recreations, can help us understand specific aspects of the beer of the past.

1. Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout (9%, bottle)
It’s hard to work out if this is an accurate recreation of an historic recipe but, nonetheless, it is reckoned by some to be the best chance most of us will get to experience the sour Brettanomyces character which would have been present in many 19th century beers. (As they say on Wikipedia, CITATION NEEDED.) It’s pretty intense; you might not even like it the first time you try it (we didn’t) but it’s well worth trying twice and is one of our favourites now.

2. Fuller’s Past Masters XX Strong Ale (7.5%, bottle)
Based on a recipe from 1891, some work went into this, including tracking down a specific variety of barley and then having it malted as it would have been at the end of the nineteenth century. Trying to understand styles gets our heads in a whirl but, as we understand it, this could be called a ‘burton’, a type of beer rarely found these days.

3. Fuller’s Past Masters Double Stout (7.4%, bottle)
This was brewed from an 1893 recipe and, despite the ‘double’ moniker, is interesting because it represents what you might have got if you’d ordered just a straight stout in a London pub at that time. Great to contrast with Fuller’s London Porter.

4. Westerham’s Audit Ale (bottle Cask)
An occasional but award-winning product from this Kent brewery, Audit Ale is “brewed to the 1938 strength and using the same ingredients as the original best selling bottled beer of the Black Eagle Brewery”. We haven’t tried it, but we’d like to. Thanks to Ed for tipping us off to this one.

5. Kernel’s historic range (bottle)
There are too many beers in this range to list them all. Each recreates a porter, stout or IPA from a specific year and, the brewer tells us on the Twitter, most are based on specific historical recipes. Kernel have also collaborated with Thornbridge on a burton for this year’s Borefts festival. Again, we haven’t tried any of these, but others have.

6. Worthington E (4.8%, bottle)
A sullied name because it was applied to a Worthington keg beer in the 1970s and 80s but, we are told, this is brewed to the 1965 recipe for Bass Pale Ale. Again, we haven’t tried it, but Zak has. Thank to the Beer Nut for the tip on this one.

7. Harvey’s Ration Ale (2.7%, cask)
We’ve only seen it for sale once and they don’t mention it on their website but this is a recreation of a beer brewed during World War II when raw materials were scarce and beers got very weak. From what we’ve seen in Ron’s tables, only milds generally got down this low, but the point is made. We expect to see it crop up again now there are tax breaks for beers at this strength.

8. Greene King Suffolk Strong (6%)
This strong beer is interesting because, as many beers would once have been at point of sale, it is a mix of ‘stale’ beer matured in wooden vats (Greene King’s 5X, which they don’t sell) with a younger, ‘milder’ beer.

9. Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild (6%, bottle/cask)
According to the brewers, this is a strong mild brewed to a pre-World War I recipe. We’ve never tried it but everyone else in the entire world hasThe idea that milds are weak, sub-4% beers is quite a modern idea after all. (With thanks to Graeme Coates for reminding us of this one.)

10. Courage Imperial Stout (tbc)
The word on the street (actually Ed’s blog again) is that Wells and Youngs are planning to revive Courage Imperial Stout. Which recipe will they use? Who knows. UPDATE: it’s out in the US.

Need we say (again) that we think this kind of thing is fascinating and that we’d like to see more breweries give it a go?

Of course, the main reason for this post is to keep everyone busy correcting us and adding to the list while we’re away in Spain for a fortnight. Hasta luego!

UPDATES

20:49 23/09/11 Somehow we missed Pretty Things and their Once Upon at Time series, which they worked on with Ron Pattinson. There’s a 1901 Whitbread KK, an 1832 Truman Mild and an 1855 Barclay Perkins East India Porter. Thanks to Dave for tipping us off to this in a comment below.