Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout, 1970

The bottle (brewed in 1970) and the beer.

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.

7 thoughts on “Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout, 1970”

  1. B&B,

    If you ever come across anoth­er bot­tle of com­pa­ra­ble vin­tage, let’s work to donate it to sci­ence, to iso­late that Brett strain so that we can brew with it, and keep it going for future gen­er­a­tions. Unless you know of a yeast lab that’s already done it. Ron sent a bot­tle (cir­ca 1992?) to White Labs, and they iso­lat­ed the Sacch, but did­n’t find/couldn’t iso­late the Brett.


    1. There are quite a few bot­tles still out there if the response to this post on Twit­ter is any­thing to go by. And pre­sum­ably any­one who was that both­ered could just buy one from Kul­mi­na­tor like we did back in 2010, assum­ing they still have some in their cel­lar.

      1. Sor­ry Mike, we over­lapped, great minds and all that.

        @Bailey – 1983 would be far less inter­est­ing, as it’s after the move to what would become the Fos­ters fac­to­ry in Read­ing. Yours would have been brewed at Bank­side, after the Courage takeover in 1955 but before they were bought in turn by Impe­r­i­al Tobac­co. I can’t imag­ine any­thing good came from that.…

        Pre 1955 would obvi­ous­ly be even bet­ter as you could guar­an­tee that it was a “true” Bar­clays yeast in some sense (although qv the puta­tive Great Bod­dies Yeast Cri­sis of 1981), though I can’t imag­ine Courage impos­ing their own yeast on Bank­side unless there was a prob­lem.

        I’d imag­ine it should be pos­si­ble to cul­ture yeast on a saucer of gela­tine-boiled-in-apple-juice – no doubt there are Youtube videos some­where – but I’m not sure I’d start with some­thing this pre­cious. It’s becom­ing quite a thing for home­brew­ers to fish out the yeast from dregs and even do DNA fin­ger­print­ing on them in order to reverse engi­neer the beer. Some­one has iden­ti­fied three dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tion yeasts and a bot­tling yeast in one of the NEIPAs.…

        1. It was­n’t brewed at Bank­side, I’m afraid: Bar­clay’s brew­ery was in fact closed well before 1970 (the lager brew­ery final­ly closed at the end of 1962/beginning of 1963). The 1970 batch would have been brewed at Courage’s brew­ery at Hors­ley­down.

  2. Heh, fun.

    Worth point­ing out that if you or any­one else get these sorts of bot­tles, there’s home­brew­ers who will be inter­est­ed in the yeast. Of course the real dream would be a 70s bot­tle of Bod­dies with yeast, but Ron Pat­tin­son might be inter­est­ed in this one?

  3. Can’t do a Bod­dies from the 1970’s with yeast, but have a Hig­son’s from 1981 upstairs !

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