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.

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.