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.

    Mike

    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?

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