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.