In the late 1970s, when I was honing my skills as a fledgling beer writer, I visited Courage’s brewery by the banks of the River Thames in London. It was a historic site, with deep roots in the brewing of porter, stout and pale ale, and it afforded stunning views of Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I finished my tour, I noticed a few small wooden casks of beer standing incongruously in a corridor of the administration block.
“What do they contain?” I asked, boy reporter’s notebook at the ready. “Ah,” my guide told me in hushed tones, “that’s a batch of Russian stout. It’s maturing and should be ready for bottling in a few months.”
The casks were known as “pins,” the smallest type made in Britain, each one holding just 4.5 gallons of beer. The size of the batch indicated all too obviously that Courage’s Imperial Russian Stout, despite the grandeur of its title, was now a much diminished beer.
In its day, and in its pomp, it was a beer of considerable importance, one that was exported to Russia and the Baltic states in barrels, butts and hogsheads rather than diminutive pins.
In the heyday of porter and stout brewing in London in the 18th century, more than 10 breweries were engaged in exporting dark beer to the Baltic. These beers were exceptionally high in alcohol and hops to enable them to withstand the rigors of a long sea journey.
The best-known brewer of export stout was Thrale’s Anchor Brewery in the parish [district] of Southwark, a mile or two up river from the Courage site. In 1796 Thrale’s supplied porter “that would keep seven years” to the Empress of Russia. The author of The History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Saviour, Southwark, said of Thrale’s beer at that time, “The reputation and enjoyment of Porter is by no means confined to England. As proof of the truth of this assertion, this house exports annually very large quantities; so far extended are its commercial connections that Thrale’s Entire [a contemporary name for porter] is well known, as a delicious beverage, from the frozen regions of Russia to the burning sands of Bengal and Sumatra. The Empress of All Russia is indeed so partial to Porter that she has ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking and that of her court.”
When Henry Thrale, the owner, died, the brewery was sold to a Scottish-American banker called Barclay. He joined forces with another banker called Perkins and they developed their brewery into the biggest producer of mild, porter and stout in London. In 1955, Barclay Perkins was taken over by Courage, who closed the Anchor Brewery but transferred the name to its neighboring site. It was by this circuitous route that I first encountered Imperial Russian stout.
Up from the Sea
Barclay’s version of the beer had a long journey from London to Danzig, and then into the Baltic states and Imperial Russia. The voyage was especially hazardous during the time when Napoleon’s French forces blocked the Baltic ports. One consignment of beer finished up on the seabed in 1869 when the Prussian ship, Oliva, was wrecked. In 1974 Norwegian divers brought some bottles from the wreck to the surface. They bore the name of “A Le Coq.” Research showed that he was a Belgian who had earned his living exporting beer from Britain to the Baltic.
Le Coq played a pivotal role in the success of Russian stout. Due to his generous donations of stout to Russian soldiers who had been wounded in the Crimean War, he was awarded the Imperial warrant from a grateful tsar. In the early 20th century, Russia’s imposition of heavy import duties forced Le Coq’s company to brew Imperial stout inside the country’s boundaries. It bought a brewery in the town of Tartu in Livonia, which is now the independent nation of Estonia.
But Le Coq’s Russian enterprise was short-lived. It was nationalized by the Bolshevik government after the 1917 Russian revolution. In 1971, after years of wrangling over compensation, the Soviets paid ￡240,000 to Le Coq’s surviving family. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the brewery in Tartu was privatized. It last brewed porter in 1969 and its managers say they might restore porter and stout to their portfolio.
Barclay Perkins and later Courage continued to brew Imperial Russian Stout but mainly for the domestic British market. When it was brewed in London, the beer was matured in those small wooden pins for a year prior to bottling. Finally, Courage’s Anchor Brewery closed in the 1980s and production of the stout was switched to its subsidiary, John Smith’s, in Tadcaster, a famous brewing town in Yorkshire in the north of England. [In addition to John Smith’s, it is home to Samuel Smith (a distant relative) and one of Bass’s breweries.] Imperial Russian Stout was no longer matured in the brewery but was bottled and sold after only a brief conditioning period.
As soon as the beer left London, rumors about its impending demise started to circulate, and the brewery’s practice of placing unripened bottles on the market did little to improve the beer’s credibility or drinkability. Predictably, in the 1990s, Courage (by then part of the giant Scottish Courage group) stopped production of this historic beer.
Hallmarks of the Style
It will be of little comfort if I tell you what a truly remarkable beer this was. As it was bottle-fermented with live yeast, it improved with age. It was 10 percent alcohol by volume and was brewed from pale, amber and black malts with a touch of Pilsner malt. It is thought that Pilsner malt was used from the 19th century―perhaps some European malt came back in the vessels that supplied the Baltic with beer. An enormous amount of Target hops, around 24 pounds per barrel, were used. That’s four times the hop rate of a conventional beer. It had an aroma of fresh leather and licorice, with bitter chocolate in the mouth, and an intense finish packed with bitter dark fruit and hops. There was an oily, tarry note, the hallmark of the style.
In 1992, when I mentioned the beer on a BBC radio program, a listener called to say he had a bottle of Imperial Russian stout dated 1969, which I was welcome to have. I drove the next day to his home in the town of Newmarket in Suffolk in eastern England. The beer predated the Courage takeover and was branded as Barclays. It was still in splendid condition, and was softer and silkier than a young version.
The disappearance of Courage’s Russian Imperial Stout seemed to mark the end of a noble beer style. But that distant relative of John Smith, Samuel, came to the rescue with three superlative dark bottled beers―Taddy Porter (Taddy is a diminutive for the town of Tadcaster) Oatmeal Stout and Imperial Stout. The beers are marketed in the United States by Merchand du Vin of Seattle.
I have heard gossip that the owner of Samuel Smith, Humphrey Smith, launched his Imperial stout as a mark of sibling rivalry when the Courage beer was transferred to John Smith’s brewery. No matter, it is a brilliant beer in its own right. Smith’s describe the 7 percent ABV beer as an ideal digestif, the perfect replacement for cognac. It even recommends serving the beer in a brandy balloon.
Suggestions for companions at the dining table include Stilton and walnuts, baked sultana and lemon cheesecake, caviar, apricot-glazed bread-and-butter pudding, chocolate baked Alaska, and chocolate trifle with roasted almonds. The beer will certainly not be overpowered by any dish, with its highly complex, big roast barley nose; a distinct flavor of burnt dark fruit; a deceptively smooth, cappuccino coffee character; and a hint of lactic sourness; creamy malt and hops in the mouth; and a finish bursting with more sour, dark fruit and intense hoppiness from traditional Fuggles and Goldings varieties.
It would be churlish to complain, but my only caveats about the Sam Smith’s beer is that 7 percent alcohol is a little on the shy side for the style, and as the beer is pasteurized, it will not develop the complexities of the Courage version. This problem has been solved by another family-owned brewery, Harvey’s of Lewes in Sussex.
Lewes is on the south coast of England, about an hour from London and close to the famous Regency seaside resort of Brighton. The brewery dates from 1790 and has connections with Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, who worked as an excise officer in the area. The site was rebuilt in 1881 with a classic Victorian “tower” design.
The utilitarian Victorians loved simplicity and hated waste. To this end, Harvey’s and other similar breweries, such as Hook Norton and Tolly Cobbold, avoid the use of pumps that can all too easily break down. At Harvey’s, the brewing process flows logically from floor to floor, with “liquor” [water] tanks and malt stored at the top, leading to mash tuns, boiling coppers, coolers, fermenters and, finally, cask fillers.
In spite of the name, Harvey’s is now owned by the Jenner family, who originally had a brewery in London. Head brewer Miles Jenner has a deserved reputation as a master craftsman and has, for several years now, produced an excellent bottled-fermented porter. He and his colleagues worked with the Tartu Brewery in Estonia and the trustees of A Le Coq to launch an Imperial Extra Double Stout that is as close to the original as we are likely to get.
Their product is 9 percent ABV and is brewed with pale, amber, brown and black malts, plus high levels of Fuggles and Goldings hops. It has a complex aroma and palate of sour fruit, roasted grain and spicy hops, with hints of bitter chocolate and espresso coffee. It is bottled fermented and will therefore improve and ripen over the years. It is brewed as an annual vintage in small batches and is available in the United States as well as Britain. For details, see www.freepages.pavilion.net/users/harveys or phone 0044 1273 480209.
Buy some, drink some, lay some down. It’s a beer for posterity.
Roger Protz is the editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. His most recent book is India Pale Ale, with Clive La Penseé, published in the Homebrew Classics Series by CAMRA Books.