beer reviews

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.