Fuller’s Imperial Stout – the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months?

Imperial stout blurredIs Fuller’s Imperial Stout the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months? It didn’t stir a lot of enthusiasm when it appeared last autumn: much muttering about the beer being too sweet, very little character, “a bit anonymous”, not drinking to its 10.7 per cent abv, not worth its £7-plus a bottle, not worth buying again. An air of disappointment settled down around it, a feeling that an Imperial Stout from the Griffin brewery, with its reputation for terrific tasty brews, really ought to have been much more of a sock-fryer than this beer was.

Fair? I tried the Imperial Stout myself when it first came out in September (IIRC it was a free bottle actually given to me by John Keeling, Fuller’s head brewer) and yes, it was over-sweet and shallow. I wasn’t particularly surprised, though: this was a strong, dark, bottle-conditioned beer that had only been brewed four months earlier, and was barely out of the maturing tanks. To expect it to be anything other than one-dimensional at that age was like expecting a still-sopping newborn to show the depth and maturity of a 40-year-old. There was no reason to think this beer would not improve considerably as it aged, and the yeasts in the bottle munched away at those heavier sugars that were currently making it taste so sweet. So, feeling flush just before Christmas, I invested in a case, to see if this ugly duckling would turn into a black swan.

My feelings had been strengthened when John Keeling himself tweeted in November about the Imperial Stout: “Hang on to it – it will be better in 6 months”. That’s this coming May, at which stage it will be a year old. But how’s it tasting now? Already a lot better than it was in September, is my opinion. It’s still sweet, but there’s a complexity starting to appear, with thoughts of liquorice toffee, golden syrup and plain chocolate digestive biscuits. (Rose buds? If you say so.) There is still little hint that you are drinking a 10.7 per cent abv brew, but it’s a very smooth sipping beer with a full, slightly peppery mouthfeel. It’s also a beer that needs to breathe a bit, at least at this stage of its ageing: the complexity becomes more apparent the longer the beer is in your glass. It’s also still clearly, to me, a beer that will happily benefit from yet more time being left alone in a darkened room.

If you have a bottle of Fuller’s Imperial Stout, my advice is not to open it until at least the end of May – and I don’t think it will do you or the beer any harm to wait until November. If you have two bottles, try one this April or May and the other next April or May. If you’ve been put off buying it by the bad reviews in some places, I’ll tell you what: buy two bottles, drink one in May, if you don’t like it, I’ll buy the other one off you.

The big problem has been, I think, that we’re not used to beers that don’t deliver their best as soon as we buy them. We understand ageing in other foods: cheese, for example, or meat. I know a restaurant in Hong Kong, the Blue Butcher in Hollywood Road, Central, that has a glass-walled meat store lined with Himalayan pink salt bricks, visible from the tables, where you can ask for your own personal virgin female Japanese wagyu beef steak to be dry-aged for an extra six weeks until it and you are ready. But we’re not yet up to walking into a bar and saying: “I’d like an Imperial Stout, please, aged for another nine months: I’ll be back in December to drink it.” Instead, brewers have been mostly ageing their beers that require ageing for us – Fuller’s keeps some of its Brewer’s Reserve series literally for years before releasing them on to the market when they’re ready. With Imperial Stout it didn’t, to the confusion of many.

Another problem, for some, is the price: £7 a bottle on the Fuller’s website right now. That’s the same as three bottles of Chiswick bitter. But it’s no coincidence that a bottle of 10.7% abv Imperial Stout contains the equivalent amount of alcohol as those three bottles of 3.5% abv Chiswick: you’re getting just the same alcoholic bang per penny whichever you buy. Which gives you more pleasure, only you can reveal.

An 1875 Arctic Ale tasting

Legendary: it’s an overused word. But some beers literally are legendary, in the sense that far more people will have heard of them than will ever see them or taste them.

1875 reputed quart AAA bottle

Reputed quart bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale with date ’1875′ painted in punt

One indisputably legendary beer is Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, the powerful, rich Burton Ale, original gravity 1130, north of 11 per cent alcohol, brewed in Victorian times specifically for expeditions to the Arctic Circle by British explorers. There are a very few bottles left of the Arctic Ale brewed for the expedition under Sir George Nares which set out in 1875 to reach the North Pole. And this week I drank some.

I can’t think of superlatives high enough to describe how thrilled, privileged, lucky, honoured I felt to get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try a beer 137 years old, with so much history behind it. This is exactly the same beer the Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard drank when he visited Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent in 1890. Subsequently Barnard wrote the experience up in his chapter on Allsopp’s in Noted Breweries of Great Britain. How often do you get to compare someone’s 122-year-old tasting notes with your own experience?

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Courage IRS: a 40-year vertical tasting

Very few beer brands survive today that have modern examples to put into a worthwhile four-decade vertical tasting. That’s simply because forty years ago there were hardly any beers being brewed that had the longevity to be still drinkable when even the most junior brewer involved in their production is now at or approaching retirement age.

It wasn’t looking good for Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which was one of less than a handful of strong beers capable of great age being brewed in the 1970s and which stopped being made in the early 1990s despite a history going back more than two centuries.

But Courage IRS, doubtless in considerable part because Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1977 featured it across two pages, has inspired a huge number of imitators in the US and created an extremely popular beer style in the process.

When the Bedford brewer Wells & Youngs acquired the rights to the Courage beer brands from Scottish & Newcastle in 2007, the first two beers from the old Courage stable Wells produced were the Best Bitter and Directors Bitter. But I am sure it quickly occurred to the company’s marketers that here was a chance to bring back a truly iconic beer, which would surely have an instant appeal in the US as the ur-IRS, the Imperial Russian Stout in honour of which all others are named.

Thus in May last year the Bedford brewery produced the first new brew of Courage Imperial Russian Stout for 18 years, two bottles of which they’ve been kind enough to send to me, to my great delight, as I love a good IRS. And because I’m the sort of sad nerd who stuffs bottles of beers away for decades, I was able to pull out examples of Courage IRS from 1975, 1985 and 1992 to compare against the latest version. Continue reading

Bottle-ageing beers: the don’ts and do’s

There’s a simple rule for most modern bottled beers when it comes to ageing: don’t. It’s not worth it. Probably the vast majority of beers are designed to be drunk fresh, and all they will do if you keep them is deteriorate. However, a few beers actually need ageing before they’re in perfect condition, even if only for a couple of weeks to a month (in the case of lower-gravity bottle-conditioned ales) and some need even longer than that: nine months to two years before they’re drinkable.

For example, when bottled Guinness Extra Stout (at 4.2 per cent abv) was a “live” naturally conditioned beer (until 1994 in the UK and 2000 in Ireland) the expected number of days after bottling before the beer came into condition was seven to 14, with an average of 10 days. (This depended on the ambient temperature that the beer was stored at, of course, and it was the fact that, thanks to the arrival of central heating, pubs were much warmer inside by the 1980s that Guinness decided it needed to stop letting its stout mature naturally in the bottle: hotter pubs meant faster maturation meant the beer in the bottle was not in the condition Guinness wanted when it reached the customer’s glass.)

The stronger Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (7.5 per cent or so abv), when that was a naturally conditioned bottled beer, before 1948, required six weeks of conditioning after bottling but was then expected to remain in a perfectly drinkable state for at least a year. Lactic acid content increased as the beer aged in the bottle, but was balanced by the production of esters and other volatile components in the maturing beer, and the lactic acid was believed to add to the “fullness” of the flavour. Brewing chemists at Guinness found that yeast could survive in bottled FES for up to 35 years, suggesting that a beer could continue to mature for at least that long.

Worthington White Shield, the 5.6 per cent abv bottle-conditioned India Pale Ale, is considered to take four weeks from bottling to come into prime condition, and to stay in condition for another nine months. After that, the beer is likely to be in a less than optimum state. Anecdotal evidence suggests that White Shield will come back into condition at 15 or 16 months old, albeit with an altered taste profile. It will not, though, survive much beyond about 24 months without showing signs of deterioration.

It’s an interesting experiment to take a crate of newly-bottled lowish-gravity bottle-conditioned beers and taste them over three or four months: when I had a wedding stout made for me by the Pitfield brewery, which was bottled “live” in June at around 5 per cent abv, it hit perfection (and very fine it was) two months later, in August. After that it gradually went downhill (unlike, I’m happy to say, my marriage).

My experience is that the effect of bottle ageing on beer varies considerably depending on (1) the alcoholic content of the beer (2) whether it is bottle-conditioned, that is, contains live yeast, or not (3) the conditions under which the bottle is kept and (4) the colour of the beer, with darker beers ageing better than lighter ones. I’ve drunk a 20-year-old pasteurised 8 per cent abv stout that was fine: I doubt the same would be true of a pale beer that old, even one that strong.

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IPA: the hot maturation experiment

In any modern account of the history of India Pale Ale, you’ll generally find a declaration that the casks of well-hopped beer sent out to India by ship via the Cape of Good Hope in the late 18th century matured and developed quickly in a way that the same beer kept at home in Britain did not. It was this accelerated maturation in a short time (three to four months or so) caused by travelling through the warm waters and hot climate of the central Atlantic and the Indian Ocean as the sailing ships twice crossed the equator that gave IPA the character that was so much appreciated by expatriate Britons in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, supposedly. But is this actually true?

You’ll be pushed to find contemporary (that is, 18th and 19th century) confirmation of the “hot maturation” theory for IPA’s popularity in India. Contemporary writers talked about the enthusiasm with which IPA was consumed in the Indian heat, but never seemed to mention whether it was altered to the good on its way east.

Certainly “hot maturation” can’t be the cause for any popularity for IPA back in Britain, since if the beer did go through any accelerated changes on the voyage to the sub-continent, this couldn’t be happening to the beer stored in chilly cellars back home. Are current writers on beer guilty of assumptionism (otherwise known as “you’re making this up”), the crime of assuming without evidence that situation A must surely have brought about result B – that beer on board a sailing ship travelling through the tropics must surely have matured quickly?

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So you think you know what porter tastes like …


I am always alert for any comments about how beers tasted in the past. They don’t appear very often, but they’re fascinating when they do. So I leapt upon a line out of a recent blog by Ron Pattinson, in a description from 1889 of an obscure style called Adambier, which Ron had translated from German: “… the beer was perfectly carbonated and tasted sour, porter-like.”

Now, this is from a German source, the Zeitschrift für Angewandte Chemie (Journal of Applied Chemistry), so its opinion might not hold outside the lands controlled by Kaiser Wilhelm. Did English porter in the 19th century have a sour taste? Well, not sour, I suggest (although one man’s “sour” is another’s “nicely tart”), but the evidence says that for a long time there was a definite acid component to the flavour of 19th century porter.

In 1899 a senior employee in one of the big London breweries, a man called John Kibble, gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry, the Home Office committee on beer materials. During his lengthy and fascinating evidence, Mr Kibble, talking about the porter brewed 36 years earlier, in 1863, said that it was “principally vatted beer, and brewed entirely from English barley, and it had a certain acid character with it.”

To show that Mr Kibble’s memory was good, here’s a quote from Charles Dickens’s magazine All The Year Round, September 19, 1868: “Porter owes much of its tart and astringent flavour to a high, rapid fermentation which carries down the density without diminishing the high flavour drawn from the materials.”

Tart, astringent, acid: these are not words you will find in the descriptions of porter in the latest Brewers Association beer style guidelines. But Dickens was wrong, I believe, in attributing that tartness to “a high, rapid fermentation”. As Mr Kibble said, this was vatted beer, well-aged. Here he is being questioned in 1899 on just that subject:

[Q] “The old beer and the porter in the year 1863, I suppose, had to be kept by the brewers for some considerable time before they were consumed?[A] “It was generally brewed in the winter. The supply for nearly the whole year was brewed in the winter months, and then they brewed more in the summer, up to perhaps about June; they missed July altogether and two weeks of August perhaps, missed six weeks in the summer, and up to that point they would blend the other beer with it. It was really sent out as a blend, a blend of the old beer with some of the new beer.”
[Q] “But there was a good deal of beer and porter kept by the brewer for some weeks, or possibly months was there not?” [A] “Quite so; it would be in his vats six to nine months stock, say.”

There’s a lot in that passage to absorb: no summer brewing, notice, this was still the pre-refrigeration era, when it was too hot to brew safely in July and early August. Mr Kibble was saying that in the 1860s porter was mostly brewed in the winter, kept for between six and nine months, and then generally sent out by the brewers pre-blended with fresher beer, presumably to give it some condition. The porter had a tartness that came, presumably, from being stored for half a year or more in vats. But it wasn’t, it appears, an overwhelming tartness of the sort that characterises certain long-aged Belgian beer styles, or, say, Gale’s Prize Old Ale, another vatted beer, judging by a comment from the Quarterly Review in January 1855: “… the foaming tankard of Meux’s entire … smooth, pleasantly bitter, slightly acid, and bearded with a fine and persistent froth.” Meux, pronounced “mewks”, was one of the “top 10″ London porter brewers, and ran the brewery that stood on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and what is now New Oxford Street, where the Dominion Theatre now is.

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Aged White Shield

The Long Ship, where I misspent much of my youth, was everything you would expect of a pub run by Watney’s on the ground floor of a 1960s office block. Its attractions for the students who made up most of the customers, however, were that it was central, large, mostly dark inside and, crucially, the bar staff never asked any questions about your age.

The beer, of course, was generally awful (Red Barrel! Star Light!), but the Ship did stock Worthington White Shield, originally called Worthington IPA, and named for the “white shield” trademark on the label .

Beer&Skittles beermat

The beermat produced to publicise "Beer and Skittles"

In 1976 my then girlfriend had bought me my first ever book on beer, Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles. Boston wrote one of the pioneering columns on beer and pubs, in The Guardian, which started in 1973, and probably did as much as Camra to turn people on to a proper appreciation of the glories of British beer. Beer and Skittles devoted several pages to White Shield, then one of only five surviving naturally conditioned bottled beers in Britain, correctly describing it as one of the world’s greatest brews.

Because it contained a yeasty sediment in the bottle, Boston revealed to his wondering readership, White Shield altered as it aged. The beer came into prime condition about four weeks after bottling, Boston informed us, and would then stay in condition for up to another nine months. As this was the 1970s, “best before” dates were still in the future, and the only indication of when a bottle had been filled was through the numbers, one to 13, printed on the label, and the nicks, one, two, three or four, cut into the label’s edge. The nicks indicated which quarter of the year the bottle had been filled in, the numbers showed which week of the quarter.

After 10 months, Boston, said, White Shield went out of condition, and could develop a sulphury taste (not surprising, since it was made with the notoriously sulphury well-water of Burton). But if the drinker could hang on for “as long as fifteen months, one of two things may happen. If you are very unlucky, it will develop a really unpleasant flavour. Most bottles, however, should come back into condition with a flavour that is different from the original but which some connoisseurs consider to be even better.”

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