Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout, 1970

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.

VIDEO: Chas & Dave – Courage Best

This advertisement for Courage Best from 1979 does the rounds fairly frequently and it’s obvious why: authentic period cinematography, a catchy tune based on a hit single, and a brilliant statement of ‘brand identity’. Thirty-five years later, with extra layers of retro-nostalgic charm, it’s surely due a revival by the current brand-owners.

Pinning down the Big Six

Window with the Bass logo, Kennington, South London.

We’ve been grappling with a problem this weekend: commentary on the British beer industry makes frequent reference to the Big Six, a set of colossal brewing companies emerging from the takeover mania of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Sometimes, though, it’s the Big Five, the Big Seven, or even the Big Eight; and the companies making up the Big Six in 1960 merge with others, grow and change names, which makes it hard to keep track.

In trying to tell a story, this is a pain.

Should we explain every name change as it happens, possibly confusing the reader and slowing down the narrative? Rely on footnotes? Or, as we’ve seen people do when writing about, say, the Royal Air Force, or Archibald ‘Cary Grant’ Leach, refer to them throughout by one name for the sake of clarity at the expense of accuracy? (With an explanatory note, of course.) We’re inclined towards the latter approach, but still thinking.

Anyway, for your information, in the oh-so-2002 Schott’s Miscellany style, here’s our best attempt to explain the Big Six.

UPDATED: Tandleman highlighted that we’d picked a bad source for our 1960 list, so we’ve found a better one from 1959 and changed the first section below.

UPDATED AGAIN: based on Martyn’s suggestions below. (We’ll also try to identify newspaper sources for each of the mergers/changes.)

The Big Six in 1959#
Ind Coope and Taylor Walker, Watney Mann, Courage and Barclay, Bass Ratcliffe Gretton, Whitbread, Scottish Brewers.
 
Brewery mergers/takeovers 1960-67
Courage Barclay + Simonds = Courage Barclay & Simonds (1960)
Scottish Brewers + Newcastle Breweries = Scottish and Newcastle (1960)
Bass + Mitchells & Butlers = Bass Mitchells & Butlers (1961)
Ind Coope/Taylor Walker + Ansells+Tetley Walker = Ind Coope Tetley Ansell (1961)
Ind Coope Tetley Ansell = Allied Breweries (1963)
Charrington United + Bass Mitchells & Butlers = Bass Charrington (1967)
 
The Big Six in 1967##
Bass Charrington, Allied Breweries, Whitbread, Watney Mann, Scottish and Newcastle, Courage Barclay & Simonds.
 
Brewery mergers/takeovers/name changes after 1967
Courage Barclay & Simonds = Courage (1970)
Watney Mann + Truman Hanbury & Buxton (owned by Grand Metropolitan Hotels) = Watney Mann & Truman (part of Grand Metropolitan) (1973)
Allied + J. Lyons = Allied Lyons (1978)
Bass Charrington = Bass (1983)
 
The Big Six in 1989###
Allied, Bass, Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Scottish & Newcastle, Whitbread.
 
The Big Seven
As above, but with Guinness.
 
  • # ‘Towards Larger Units in the Brewery Trade’, The Times, 19 February 1960, p.17. ‘What the Brewery Merger Means’, The Financial Times, 4 June 1959, p.11.
  • ## Beer: a report on the supply of beer, Monopolies Commission, 1969, table IV, p.5.
  • ### The Suppply of Beer, Monopolies and Mergers Commission, March 1989, Appendix 2.3, p.238.