The passion for porter and stout in Russia and the Baltic is due to the vigor with which London brewers exported their beers in the 18th and 19th centuries. At one time more than 10 London breweries were making strong versions of their dark beers for export. The most successful was Thrale on the south bank of the Thames, a brewery in which Dr. Samuel Johnson, the noted lexicographer, was a major investor. Thrale was taken over by a Scottish-American named Barclay; other members of his family went into banking and prospered.
Barclay’s Imperial Russian Stout had a long journey from London to Danzig (Gdansk), then into the Baltic States and finally, Russia. The voyage was especially hazardous during the period when Napoleon’s forces blocked the Baltic ports.
One consignment of beer ended up on the ocean floor in 1869 when the Prussian ship, Oliva, wrecked. In 1974 Norwegian divers brought some bottles to the surface that bore the name of “A Le Coq.” Albert Le Coq was a Belgian who earned his living exporting beer from Britain to the Baltic from 1807. Thanks to generous donations of stout to Russian soldiers who had been wounded in the Crimea, Le Coq was granted an imperial warrant by a grateful czar.
Early in the 20th century, increased import duties forced Le Coq’s company to brew stout in the Russian empire. It purchased a brewery in Tartu, which is now in modern Estonia. But Le Coq’s Russian enterprise was short lived. As a result of the 1917 revolution, the Tartu brewery was nationalized. In 1971, after years of dispute, the Soviet government paid $200,000 to Le Coq’s surviving family.
Porter and imperial stout have survived in Russia—and so has the name of the man who first introduced it to the country. In the Stepan Razin Brewery, the curator, Madame Galina Klyarovskaya, reverently displayed a bottle embossed with the Le Coq name.
In Estonia, Le Coq’s brewery in Tartu was privatized in the early 1990s and now uses the brand name of “A Le Coq” on its labels. In 1999, a Le Coq Porter was reintroduced. At 6.5 percent ABV, with dark grain, espresso coffee and peppery hops, it is effectively an imperial Russian stout rather than a porter.