The continuing fantastic expansion in the number of old documents scanned, OCR’d and available on the internet is presenting the lucky historical searcher with constant opportunities to push back the boundaries. The latest terrific find is an ante-dating of the first use of the expression “India pale ale” by almost six years, taking it from Liverpool in January 1835 to Sydney, Australia in August 1829.
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
It was terrific to see a positive story on the BBC about beer, with the coverage of the Great Baltic Adventure, the project to take Imperial Russian Stout back to Russia by boat, just the way it was done 200 and more years ago. But what’s this claim here, at 1:05 by BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg, talking about the first exports of stout from England to the Baltic:
“The problem was that by the time it had got to Russia it had frozen, so the brewers back home bumped up the alcohol content to make sure it didn’t turn into ice-lollies.”
Nooooooooooooo! Please, there are enough myths about beer history already, without new ones being started. Let’s make it clear, right now: the stout exported to Russia was NOT brewed strong to stop it freezing. If it had been cold enough to freeze the beer, the ocean itself would have frozen over, and the ships wouldn’t have been able to get through. It was brewed strong because that’s the way the customers liked it.
Actually, and with respect to Tim O’Rourke, whose idea the Great Baltic Adventure was, and who roped in 11 British brewers from Black Sheep to Meantime to supply Imperial Russian Stouts to take to St Petersburg by sea, the Russians also liked another strong English brew in the 18th century, Burton Ale, the thick, sweet, brown ale brewed in Burton upon Trent and shipped out of Hull. But on March 31 1822 the Russian government introduced a new tariff that banned almost every article of British manufacture, from cotton goods to plate glass, knives and forks to cheese, umbrellas to snuff boxes – and “Shrub, Liquors, Ale and Cyder”. Porter, however – and this included what we would now call stout – was left untouched. The Burton ale trade to the Baltic was wrecked, but British porter brewers could send as much of the black stuff to St Petersburg as they wanted. Continue reading
Someone has put Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “John Barleycorn”, a “lament for, and a celebration of, the Great British Pub”, from the BBC Culture Show programme, up on YouTube: you can find it here and, if you haven’t heard it yet, I feel confident in saying you’ll enjoy it greatly.
Duffy’s poem is a rare and brilliant exception to the general rule that poetry about pubs and beer is mostly pretty bad: Pete Brown commented in Hops and Glory that India Pale Ale in particular seemed to inspire Britons stationed out in Bengal, Calcutta or Madras to dreadful attempts at rhyme and metre. Here’s one I reproduce for its awfulness: it appears in
the autobiography of a book by Harry Abbott, who was an officer in the Indian Army manager of an indigo factory in Bihar, north-east India in the last half of the 19th century, and, as it happens, grandson of a partner in Hodgson’s brewery, Edwin Abbott. This was “a song which used to be sung at many a pigstick party and race meeting in the thirties, forties and fifties”, that is, 1830s to 1850s:
‘Who has not tasted of Hodgson’s pale beer
With its flavour the finest that hops ever gave?
It drives away sadness, it banishes fear,
And imparts a glad feeling of joy to the grave.
I love “blue-sky” invitations, unexpected requests for my company, so though it’s only a “virtual” event I was flattered and delighted to be nominated by Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog as one of his four guests for a fantasy beer dinner.
The “fantasy beer dinner” question was thought up by the American beer writer and beer blogger Stan Hieronymous, and the idea, Stan says, is
If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?”
The 10 “beer dinner fantasists” Stan has put up on his site so far have chosen a range of guests for which “eclectic” seems utterly inadequate as a description. They include Bernardo O’Higgins, the 19th century South American revolutionary; Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys; Robert Noonan, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; William Shakespeare (nominated by two people); Martin Luther; Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson (also nominated by two people); David Bowie; Socrates; Winston Churchill; Ernest Hemingway; and John McEnroe. And me.
Since I’ve been chosen myself, I have naturally thouight about who I’d like to invite to my own fantasy beer dinner. I’m a little unhappy at the number restriction Stan has put on the game, as five – one host and four guests – doesn’t work that well in social situations. Sociologists say the ideal numbers of people for good conversation are three or four. Any more than that, and people get squeezed out, as the “natural” group number asserts itself. Take a look around at your next social gathering, and see how people naturally congregate in threes or fours – never fives. So it may be better to have host and three guests, or otherwise host and seven guests, which would the conversational group to split easily into two equal parts.
It’s a mark of the low status given to working class history that the role in London’s life and economy played by the city’s thousands of street and river porters, the men who gave their name to the beer, is almost completely forgotten, only 70 or so years after the last of the porters died.
Almost no modern books on the history of London mention the Ticket Porters and their rivals the Fellowship Porters, not even Weinreb and Hibbert’s 1,000-page London Encyclopedia (which does, however, manage to mangle a nonsensical story about ale conners and the Tiger pub at the Tower of London).
The exception is Peter Earle’s A City Full of People, subtitled Men and Women of London 1650-1750, published in 1994, which leans for its scholarship about the subject on Walter Stern’s The Porters of London, written in 1960.
This lack of general knowledge about the people who played an irreplaceable role in London’s economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries, one that was the equivalent of white van delivery driver, motorcycle courier and postman rolled into one, meant confusion for beer writers in the 1970s when they came to write about porter the drink.