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.

NOTEEd 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.