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.

Magical Mystery Pour Bonus: Tempest Mexicake

Tempest Mexicake in the glass.

Tempest’s 11% ABV chilli-infused imperial stout, Mexicake, didn’t immediately appeal to me, because it sounds like the kind of beer people invent for their ‘Hur, hur, dumb hipsters’ jokes. But, wow, was it good.

This is a kind of Magical Mystery Pour deleted scene. Dina, you might recall, was our first selector more than a year ago, and very kindly sent us this and another beer as part of a Christmas gift box last December.

There are beers to which you respond intellectually, and those for which you just have a pash. This one made me go wobbly: ‘Blimey!’ was the only note I managed for the first few minutes. When I tried to expand on that, still reeling, I came out with I now know is called a malaphor: ‘That ticks a lot of my buttons.’

Then I said ‘Mmmmmmm’, three times before my brain engaged.

It was black with a dirty brown head, like something that might leak from the engine of one of those spiky cars in a Mad Max film. It felt dense, syrupy and velvety, and tasted like treacle. The chilli was subtle, almost possible to confuse with bitterness in the muddled wiring of the brain, and really worked. As it warmed up I began to think more of chocolate and vanilla but, really, there were lots of different flavours bouncing around. It might be easiest just to say, ‘It tastes of everything.’ (Except oddly, and thankfully, the advertised cinnamon.)

This was proof that big beers can also be perfectly balanced. Delightful. Bring me another!

Too Fancy to Drink: Gadd’s Russian Imperial Stout

These two bottles have been sitting on the shelf since March 2015, throbbing with sinister energy like the crate containing the Ark in the first Indiana Jones film. Last night, we decided to vanquish them.

They are non-identical twins — the same base beer (a 12% ABV historic homage) with two treatments, one aged in bourbon barrels, the other given a dose of Brettanomyces lambicus.

We didn’t buy these but we weren’t sent them by the brewery, either: when he worked at Beer Merchants, Phil Lowry snuck them into one of our orders as a bonus. His advice at the time was (a) to be careful with the Brettanomyces-spiked version and (b) to try blending them.

Even without any chilling Brett, as we’ll call him, was no trouble at all. He hissed but didn’t gush, and gave us a thick, steady caramel-coloured foam. It smelled exactly like Harvey’s Russian Imperial Stout, which is perhaps not that surprising, and in our book a high compliment.

‘We should put the other one in a different glass so we don’t get them mixed up. Use the St Bernardus one. Because Bernard. Bernard Matthews. Turkey. Wild Turkey.’

Continue reading “Too Fancy to Drink: Gadd’s Russian Imperial Stout”

QUICK REVIEW: Thornbridge Eldon

We popped one bottle of this 8% ABV bourbon oak imperial stout into our recent Thornbridge order on a whim and drank it as a full stop to the weekend.

It’s a thick black beer with a dense coffee-coloured head. (See above.)

Kevin Eldon.
Actor and comedian Kevin Eldon after whom the beer is named. (By Christopher William Adach under Creative Commons.)

Expecting something like whisky-flavoured rocket fuel we were pleasantly surprised on tasting it to find a beer that pulls off the ultimate trick: being deep and complex, and tasting its strength, but with subtlety and restraint.

Up front, there’s an obvious vanilla note and just enough suggestion of bourbon to have made it worthwhile including in the headline. The texture on the tongue is so luxurious that it made us want some churros for dipping. The over-riding flavour is a gritty hard char, like licking coal, but that’s perfectly in balance with the sweetness.

If we can fault it it’s because the Thornbridge house character these days is a kind of clean precision which, while it works for many other styles, leaves this feeling perhaps a bit too polite. At £2.65 it’s not hugely more expensive than Guinness Foreign Extra and is quite a bit better (we love FES but it can be a bit demerara-sugary and one-dimensional) so we reckon it passes Ed’s test but, if push came to shove, we’d probably put Harvey’s filthy Imperial Stout ahead. (A fifty-fifty blend of Eldon and Harvey’s might be even better…)

IKEA construction instructions.
IKEA’s best-selling vegetable storage cabinet after which the beer is named.

In summary, Eldon is a classy, rich, interesting beer from the Fortnum & Mason of British craft breweries. Give it a go if you get the chance, especially if you prefer clean to dirty.

It’s actually named after Eldon Hole, by the way, despite our silliness, and IKEA don’t make a vegetable cabinet called ELDON as far as we know.

Session #108: Snowed In (Or Not)

This is our contribution to the 108th beer blogging session hosted by Jon at The Brewsite, with the topic ‘Snowed In’.

Britain has a pretty tame climate and snow is sufficiently rare that, when it does fall, the economy grinds to a halt as everyone reverts to childhood.

Where we live now, Cornwall, is even milder, with warm winters and cool summers. We never see frost, let alone snow, and even when it does snow up country it doesn’t seem to push past the Tamar.

What we do have is rain. Rain and gales.

Weather in which you can go to the pub as long as you don’t mind getting drenched and battered by the wind; as long as you don’t mind sitting there in wet clothes steaming like an old sock, dripping onto the floorboards; and as long as you don’t mind getting battered again on your way home. And, you know, all of that can be rather pleasant in a masochistic kind of way: there’s a cosiness attached to drinking a pint while items of street furniture stampede around town under substitutiary locomotion and the sea invites itself over the harbour wall in great chunks.

Waves crashing over the sea wall. (Animated gif.)

But we don’t usually drink anything special — there’s no imperial stout or barley wine in pubs in these parts anyway — though maybe it does nudge us away from the chiming brassiness of hops and towards beefier, browner bitters.

When it’s really bad, as in dangerous, as in batten-the-hatches and hope that’s not your roof tile shattering on the pavement, as in search and rescue helicopters overhead… Then we find ourselves huddling by the fire with Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Adnams Tally Ho or Harvey’s Imperial Stout.

They’re the beer equivalent of a warm blanket.

Fuller’s Imperial Stout

Fuller's Imperial Stout.

Critics of beer bloggers often say, ‘Free beer tastes better’, the suggestion being that samples from breweries get gushing reviews.

It is certainly true that the price you’ve paid for a beer changes your relationship with it. Having paid (with case discount and delivery) around £6 each for twelve 500ml bottles, we really, really wanted to like Fuller’s Imperial Stout.

Masters of ‘premium’ packaging, Fuller’s have given each bottle its own little box of majestic purple, glinting with inlaid silvery foil — pretty much how we imagine Queen Victoria’s coffin might have looked.

The beer slides into the glass absolutely black, with a fast-collapsing Rich-Tea-biscuit coloured head, announcing itself as Something a Bit Special.

We cannot, however, announce a transcendent experience on tasting it, or that we found any unexpected aromas or flavours — chocolate and espresso both present and correct.

What is striking is the beer’s almost ashy dryness, which brought to mind those completely unsweetened cooking chocolates of which you’re only really supposed to use a few shavings; or a dusting of cocoa powder; or perhaps the grit from the bottom of a cup of Middle Eastern-style coffee.

Once we got over the big black wall, we did spot something which reminded us of Irish cream liqueur, although that might have been suggested by the beer’s rather oily, creamy body.

As lightweights, we rather resent drinking a very strong beer (this one is 10.7% ABV) and being left with the feeling that a weaker one might have given us the same effect. If we had tried to guess the strength of this beer tasting it blind, we’d have said 7.5%, so that’s a mark against it.

On balance, though Fuller’s Imperial Stout is an excellent beer, it is not £6-a-bottle, 10.7% good. But perhaps future iterations will have more depth and complexity.

NOTE: Ed seems to have been less impressed than us.

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.