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.

Thirty-nine lagers in 40 minutes

Hong Kong Beer Awards logoSome British beer bloggers get invited to be judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Well, poot to them: I’ve just had a much more exclusive gig. Only 12 people are invited to judge in the Hong Kong International Beer Awards, and this year I was one of them.

If you’re thinking: “Yeah, man, tough job”, I can assure you it was no picnic: not unless your picnics involve sipping and sniffing 145 or so different lagers, stouts, IPAs and ales, and 21 ciders, over two three-hours sessions, with nowt to eat except crackers, there to take away the taste of the more egregiously bad examples of the brewer’s art. After about the 25th almost identical pale and generally undistinguished euro-style lager, some of the judges at the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong where the drinks had been lined up for scrutiny, appeared to be eyeing the exit and wondering if they could sprint fast enough to be out the door before they were tackled to the ground and brought back to the table. By the time the 39th and last entry in the lager section had been dismissed, it was a relief to move on to the ciders, a drink I don’t normally find much kind of relief in at all.

The judging was simple: up to 20 points for appearance, aroma, clarity and colour, up to 80 points for taste, body and mouthfeel. Most of the lagers were getting just 40 to 50 points from me, and the highest I gave was a rare 71. None was as vile as the “flavoured” ciders, mind: cheese on top of strawberry is not what I want in a glass. However, a couple of the ciders were authentically very “English” (tart, plenty of character) and, grateful, I awarded them good marks.

Pale and uninteresting

Spot the interesting lager … no? Me neither.

The “ordinary” (ie non-IPA) pale ales were almost as hard to tell one from the other as the lagers, with only one truly memorable  afterwards, thanks to a strong aroma of cedary pencil shavings (not that pencil shavings earned it more marks, at least from me). I was even more underimpressed with the brown ale category. None of the five was what I would describe as a brown ale (that is to say, dark at the least, and preferably veering towards very dark indeed), and only one had any real roasty flavour, of which I like to see a hint. The hazelnut one was easy to spot, though: it would make a good ice-cream float, but as a beer, I dunno. (Knowing what beers are available in Hong Kong, I’m guessing that was Rogue’s hazlenut brown ale. I like many of Rogue’s beers, but not this time.)

The “Belgian” ales went past in a blur of golden Duvel-alikes and browner nods towards what were presumably meant to be more “abbey” types. The “British-style” ales (my personal favourite category, I own up) contained one of the rare instantly recognisable beers in the judging, from Hong Kong’s own Typhoon brewery, which is “British” in the sense that it’s a proper cask-conditioned ale (and the only one in Asia, I believe) but sits firmly in the American Pale Ale category as far as its hop usage and character are concerned: whatever, it’s an excellent brew.

I’d love to find out the name of the really orangey wheat beer we were given: of the 26, most, again were hard to distinguish, and I was disappointed that there were not more Dunkels among the wheat beers: it’s a style I am growing increasingly fond of. One style I’m not so fond of is fruit beer, and the 16 up for judging at the Globe confirmed my prejudice: mostly unidentifiable fruit, nearly all pretty meh. The 11stouts, too, contained none among them that truly conquered. The 14 organic ales were, inevitably, a mixed bunch in terms of style, and none, I’m afraid, you would want to take home and introduce to mother.  The IPAs, by contrast, had a couple or four stand-out entries: that, I suspect, will be the hardest category to win.

So, then: thus was the Hong Kong International Beer Awards judging 2012. While the bulk of entries were ordinary (a reflection of the mostly unadventurous nature of Hong Kong’s beer importers, although there are now several honourable exceptions to that), there still were, I think, enough fine brews to make a respectable winners’ enclosure, all the same. The top beers will be announced at the 10th Hong Kong Restaurant and Bar Show, from September 11 to 13 in the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Centre and I’ll be listing them here as well.

Unexpected free beer and other adventures

The occasional free beer is, of course, one of the benefits of writing a blog about hopped alcoholic refreshment: but it doesn’t usually come to me via random interactions in the road.

Strictly, I wasn’t actually on the public highway. I was standing in what used to be Black Eagle Street, a turning off Brick Lane, in the heart of what is now Banglatown in the East End of London. Black Eagle Street was swallowed by the expansion of Truman’s brewery, at one time London’s biggest brewer, which closed more than 20 years ago. It is, now, since the old brewery site began to be converted into (quote) “East London’s revolutionary arts and media quarter”, a slightly scruffy pathway lined with slightly scruffy food outlets, bars, art galleries and the like.

I had just come out of one of those bars, where, in an attempted homage to the brewery’s past, I had drunk an Anchor porter from San Francisco. Anchor porter, inspired, ultimately, by the original 18th century beer style that made Trumans famous, was introduced in 1972 – the year after Trumans lost its independence at the end of a ferocious takeover fight.

Hobsons at Trumans

Alice Churchward, left, and Laure Roux of Hobsons brewery, parked up in the Dray Walk at the former Trumans Brewery off Brick Lane

While pondering that, and other ironies, I spotted a van in the impossible-to-miss livery of Hobsons Brewery, from Cleobury Mortimer, a tiny town on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border some 120 miles from the East End, parked 20 feet away.

Fortunately the two young women with the van were not put off by a grey-bearded loony in a blue hoodie approaching, claiming to be a beer blogger, and demanding to know what they were about. Seems that Hobsons, undeterred by the boom in London’s own brewing scene, has decided there is an opportunity for a brewery whose logo is a bowler hat to sell its beers in the capital. The van, as well as dropping off casks to pubs, was delivering mild ale for the guests at a preview show for an exhibition due to take place at one of the art galleries on the Trumans site.

They, in turn, wanted to know if I knew Hobsons (answer: heard of, never drunk) and would I like to try some, they happened to have a few bottles in the van? There’s probably a bye-law somewhere in the constitution of the International Beerbloggers’ Union that says you’re never allowed to turn down unsolicited free beer. So entirely unexpectedly, thanks to Alice Churchward of Hobsons and her companion Laure Roux, I left the former Truman’s porter brewery with a bottle of British-brewed porter, Hobson’s Postman’s Knock (and also a bottle of Hobson’s Manor Ale). Thank you very much, Alice – tried the Postman’s Knock, a fine medium-strength easy-drinking porter that would be an excellent match, I suggest, with Shropshire Blue cheese.

That very pleasant surprise made up for the unpleasant surprise three minutes later when I turned out of the top of Brick Lane, crossed the road, and discovered that Mason & Taylor, recommended as “one of London’s most ambitious new beer bars” by people I respect, doesn’t open until 5pm. I’m sure the people running the bar have what they believe to be excellent operational reasons for being shut at lunchtimes and in the afternoon, but frankly, I don’t care. If you’re not open to serve me at what I regard as a perfectly reasonable hour to be served, you’re not doing a good enough job.

Instead I went to the Water Poet nearby in Folgate Street. It may be almost a parody of the trendy Spitalfields bar – the wacky artwork on the walls, the second-hand leather sofas with the stuffing bulging out and the faux-ironic Scotch eggs on the menu (I don’t recall spotting any dimpled beermugs, but most other boxes were ticked). However, the Water Poet did manage to serve me a very pleasant pint of Truman’s Runner (from the people who revived the Truman’s name in 2010) at 3.15 in the afternoon, which is very considerably better than bleedin’ Mason & Taylor managed.

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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

If you get them to taste it, they will be converted

Henrietta gets turned on by Alastair to the complexities of beer, in this case Hospital Porter

There’s a good video short featuring the Old Brewery at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich just gone up on the Guardian‘s website here which illustrates perfectly the fact that people are best converted to good craft beer by having it shoved in their faces and being ordered: “Drink that!”

When people DO try a craft beer from somewhere outside their zone of experience and, wondrous thing, find it to be good in all manner of ways, and deeply pleasing to the heart and mouth, then do they fall to praising the small brewer, and forswearing crap megafizz for ever. As you will see at about the 6:25 mark in that video, when Alastair Hook, bossman at Meantime, the company behind the Old Brewery, hands Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Company a glass of Hospital Porter, a blend of one-year-old and comparatively fresh beers meant to emulate the kind of beer that would have been made at the original brewery on the Royal Naval College site in the 18th century, when it was the Royal Naval Hospital.

As Henrietta tastes the porter, her eyebrows almost rocket into orbit, while a grin wide enough to bridge the Thames splits her face and she declares: “Wow, that’s really good … It’s like nothing I’ve ever had before … it’s really deep, completely multidimensional … I’m amazed at the complexity. There’s no level of complexity missing in this that you would get in a wine. This has been around since 1717 and yet I didn’t even know it existed. To have a fizzy pint of something industrial instead of this – it’s a tragedy.”

It’s certainly a tragedy that Ms Lovell, presumably someone whose taste for the satisfying is away from the common run, since she is known, Google tells us, as the “rare tea lady”, has never previously been exposed to beer of the standard reached by Meantime, and many other artisinal brewers around the world. And yes, it costs £7 a pint, but at eight per cent abv and with that level of complexity, forget your pocket, you’d be doing neither the beer nor yourself any justice by wallying back pints of it. These are beers to be savoured, sipped and appreciated – and Hospital Porter, I suggest, is perhaps a sixth of the cost of an equivalent quantity of fine wine of the same sort of complexity.

So how does the beer world reach out to the likes of Ms Lovell, seekers after excellent taste experieneces but innocently unaware of the miracles that can be found in hops and malt. How can we convert them to the idea that complexity is not to be found only in a wineglass, and beer does not have to be one-dimensional fizz? What sort of evangelical effort should be made to open their mouths, and thus their eyes? Are there enough tastings being organised, enough roadshows, enough side-by-side beer versus wine challenges, enough occasions where food and wine buffs gather and beer, too, is presented as an equal partner at the table? Judging by the time it’s taken for Ms Lovell to realise how good beer can be, no. Is it so, craft beer brewers and craft beer retailers: are you reaching out to the unconverted enough?

Two horsey beers and a short kipple

I know it's nothing to do with the beer, I just like the poster

I was lucky, I think, in having my first pint of Bengal Lancer IPA, Fuller’s latest offering, in the Prince Blucher in Twickenham, where it was in excellent condition: a couple of subsequent trials elsewhere in West London haven’t been quite as good, so to borrow an Americanism, “your mileage may vary.” But I don’t think I’ve ever made such lengthy tasting notes about any beer, a tribute in itself.

The first impression is of a BIG hit of hops on the nose, with passion fruit noticeable immediately. It’s a hop-filled mouthful, with a good oily feel, and one of those beers where you’ll find something different in every swallow. Indeed, teasing apart the different taste strands is one of the pleasures of Lancer: it’s a beer for sitting and appreciating. I was getting a hint of blackberry, something earthy in the background, peppermint, the “signature” Fuller’s orange note (though less strong than in many of their beers), all with honey maltiness underpinning the floral hops and a lovely long follow-through.

I’ve seen the beer criticised as being too sweet, but to me any apparent sweetness is more an artefact of the amount of “high note” hop flavour coming through that anything real, and while the emphasis is definitely on hop aroma rather than bitterness I found it ultimately quite dry: I’d be interested in seeing the attenuation figures. Certainly, if you watch the video available here from Fuller’s, the company’s brewing manager, Derek Prentice, implies it’s a well-attenuated brew.

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Ordinary to Britons, extraordinary to Americans

Had a great session last week with two Californian brewers, Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner of Stone Brewing in San Diego, who are in the UK researching India Pale Ale for a forthcoming book from the Brewers Association in the US.

Since I’m the man that has annoyed a large swath of the American beer drinking community by insisting that the story that George Hodgson of Bow invented IPA, a tale beer drinkers in the US grew up on, is completely untrue, they wanted to talk to me while they were in the UK. Thus we arranged to meet in the Dove in Hammersmith, which by no coincidence at all was serving Fuller’s new Bengal Lancer IPA.

I’m going to talk about Bengal Lancer in another posting, so I’ll say nothing about it here except that the new beer was evidently a success at the Dove: the barman told us that the pub was getting worried that it was running out, since the pub had a special £10 promotional offer curry night this week which was meant to include a free pint of IPA, and it was looking increasingly likely they wouldn’t have any IPA left by the time curry night came round.

Anyway, I love drinking beer while at the same time talking about beer and its history to an audience so appreciative it’s taking notes, so for close on two hours I talked about researching IPA and its roots to Steve and Mitch in the tiny public bar at the Dove. Great fun for me: not entirely sure it was great fun for them, especially Mitch, who appeared to be in a precarious position perched on the narrow public bar windowsill and scribbling occasionally. No idea what the barman thought, if he was listening.

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BrewDog Atlantic IPA: is it worth it?

It’s apparently fashionable now to be sticking one’s boots into BrewDog, since the Aberdeenshire duo revealed they had reported themselves to the Portman Group, the alcohol industry watchdog, just to get the publicity. I’m always happy to join in a fight if the other side is outnumbered, so let’s have a go at them for gross historical inaccuracy over the publicity for their Atlantic IPA.

Unless you’ve been stuck in a dark bar with no internet access for the past year, you’ll know this is the brew BrewDog poured into casks and then left on a trawler sailing the North Atlantic for two months, in an attempt to replicate what happened to the original IPAs as they travelled by sea from Britain to Bombay or Calcutta.

This, BrewDog proclaimed, would be “the first IPA aged in oak casks at sea for 200 years!” Oh, really? What were Bass, Allsopp, Hodgson and the rest doing in the 19th century, shipping chopped liver out East? I don’t know when brewers in Britain stopped sending beer in casks to India to be bottled (and neither do BrewDog) but it was certainly still happening not much more than a century ago. Here’s Cornelius O’Sullivan, head brewer at Bass, one of the great Burton export pale ale brewers, giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in 1899:

“Do you export beer in the cask to places like India?”
C O’S: “Yes.”
“Which do you do most of exporting in cask or in bottle?”
C O’S: “We sell no beer in bottle. We export a considerable quantity of bulk beer in cask to India and also to Australia and America, not so much to Australia now but still what we send we export in cask. A large quantity of our beer is bottled by exporters and exported: we sell them the beer and they bottle it and export it.”
“Your beer goes out to India in casks?”
C O’S: “Yes.”

So Atlantic IPA is certainly not, as BrewDog claim, “the first commercially available, genuine sea-aged IPA in two centuries” – very far from it. Nor can they have used “a 210-year-old recipe of a traditional India Pale Ale”, since there was no such thing as India Pale Ale in 1799: the name India Pale Ale did not come into use for another 30-something years, and what brewers were exporting at the time to India was almost certainly a standard strongly hopped stock bitter beer. Nor is it true to say that “India Pale Ale was born when brewers realised that together, hops and alcohol act as a natural preservative ensuring that the beer could withstand the voyage and arrive in good condition” – brewers had known about the preserving effects of alcohol and hops for centuries before IPA, and beers were being transported around the world from the earliest years of European exploration.

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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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