It is the private hazard of a professional beer writer that his friends expect to be served great beers when they visit, and I am always happy to oblige. Such was the case recently, when I had a small party in my house. It was still winter in Massachusetts, so I bought a bunch of beers to suit the season. They all fit the theme of “British trading beers,” the ones British merchants used to ship to India, Russia and the Baltics, where they purchased furs, spices and other materials for the home front.
The flavor sensation of staled beer is variously described as soapy, fatty, sweaty or goaty. Other oxidized products in beer may impart winey, wet cardboard, cooked vegetable, celery, sour or acrid flavors.
Among the brews I had on offer were Saku Porter from Tallin, Estonia; Pripps D. Carnegie Stark-Porter from Stockholm (now apparently no longer made regularly by the brewery); Sinebrychoff Porter from Kerava, near Helsinki; Le Coq Russian Imperial Extra Double Stout made in Sussex, England, under the supervision of the Le Coq Brewery of Tartu, Estonia; and the Burton India Empire Ale from Burton-on-Trent in England, where the style originated.
As most of my guests were unfamiliar with these brews, I explained how, in the 1700s and 1800s, the British had supplied the czar with strong dark brews that warmed his imperial heart and soul in the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg and how these beers subsequently became known as “imperial” stouts and porters. These beers were eventually also brewed in the ports of call along the route, which is why we can now enjoy Baltic stouts and porters such as the ones that were on my table.
I also talked about the problems the British had during the Raj in keeping their imperial troupes in India supplied with good ale, considering that the casks had to travel across the equator on a six-week sea voyage. Brewers of Burton-on-Trent learned to make their pale ales stronger in hop-bitterness and in alcohol, both anti-spoilage agents, so the beers would still drinkable on arrival. These beers came to be known as India pale ales. Finally, I mentioned how lucky we are that many package stores feature these rare beers for the discriminating connoisseur. And then we reached for the glasses.
I knew these beer brands were great when the left the brewery, because I had tasted all of them fresh on their home turf during my travels as a diligent itinerant imbiber. After my bravado speech, therefore, I expected utterances of enthusiastic delight. But, oh, what disaster! My guests sipped my offerings in polite and embarrassed silence. At best, I got kind mutterings about how “unusual” the tastes were. I then tasted the brews myself—and each and every one was positively awful, hideous, undrinkable! To paraphrase the words from one of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” marches, the brews had turned into “Beers of Faded Glory.”
I finally went to the basement and dragged out a case of Paulaner Pils, a Munich interpretation of a northern-German hoppy pale lager. That was all I had on hand, and that case disappeared in no time!