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.
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.
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.
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.