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.

Interpreting Victorian beer ads

Only a particularly sad beer history geek – that is to say, me – would greet the excellent news that Fuller’s, the Chiswick brewer, has released a reproduction of a 7.5 per cent 19th century brew under the name Past Masters XX Ale with the cry: “Hang on, that’s not an XX – it’s too strong.” OMG, FST XX NTST. So I was relieved that Ron Pattinson, who was heavily involved in helping Fuller’s produce this new-old beer, the first in what is apparently planned to be a series of absolutely fascinating journeys back into the Griffin brewery’s brewing books, calls it an XX(K). Because an XXK is exactly what it sounds like: 1065 to 1075 or so OG, which would have sold at one shilling and sixpence a gallon wholesale, and seven pence a (quart) pot, at a time when actual proper XX was selling for four pence a pot. (And if that doesn’t sound much – a mere two pence a pint – according to this extremely useful site, 2d in 1890 is the equivalent, in average earnings, to £4.10 today.)

Victorian brewers in Britain had a fairly rigid hierarchy of beers in terms of gravity and price: each of the three main styles, ale, pale ale/bitter and porter/stout, would be sold at one of five or six “price points”, the price per gallon dictated by the original gravity. Not every brewer sold every beer at every price-point, but brewers sold, normally, nine to 12 different beers. The remarkable lack of inflation in Victorian Britain also meant that ales and beers kept the same retail prices from the 1840s through to the rises in tax that began with the Boer War.

Many of the names brewers gave the different brews were fairly standard: ales (remember, we’re talking about a time when ale was still different from beer, being less hoppy, and usually sold “mild”, that is, unaged) were almost always given an X designation, the more X’s, obviously, the stronger the ale. A light one shilling (1s) a gallon bitter ale was almost always called AK. Why? After 25 years pondering this question, I still have no good idea. The big London brewers all seem to have indicated their versions of Burton Ales with the letter K, and Ron Pattinson has amassed good evidence for this meaning “keeping”. But “K” can’t mean “keeping” in AK, because AK wasn’t a keeping beer. In addition, “K” can’t be taken to mean solely the Burton Ale style, or a keeping beer: other, smaller London brewers than the really big ones, as we shall see shortly, used “KKK” to indicate, for example, a pale ale, not a Burton Ale.

Putting that problem aside for a moment, here’s a table that should enable you to work out from any Victorian beer advertisement what the likely OG was of any beer in it, and also the likely retail price (if the ad only gives the price per firkin, or nine-gallon cask, double it to get the price per kilderkin, of course): Continue reading

So what IS the difference between barley wine and old ale?

I see Wikipedia reckons that “According to Martyn Cornell, ‘no historically meaningful difference exists between barley wines and old ales’.” Do I think that? You’ll be unshocked to learn that my beliefs are actually considerably more complex.

One problem is that in the real world, beer styles such as Burton Ale that have been called “barley wines” have also been called “old ales”. And milds. Another is that, as Michael Jackson pointed out in the 1970s, “barley wine” seems to be a name given to some very different beers. If Thomas Hardy’s Ale and Gold Label can both be called “barley wine” despite being utterly different beers, then we have a serious problem in defining “barley wine” as a style.

In fact I don’t believe there is actually any such meaningful style as “barley wine”, despite the BJCP attempting to draw up rules. Indeed, just to show how arsey such attempts at categories are, if you click on that link you’ll see the BJCP calls Fuller’s Golden Pride a barley wine and Fuller’s Vintage Ale an old ale, although they’re actually the same blahdy beer, the latter version being bottle-conditioned, the former not. And while Ratebeer and the BJCP says Thomas Hardy’s is a barley wine, Beer Advocate calls it an old ale. So: make your minds up, Yanks.

While you’re deciding on categories, however, I have to tell you – I’ve come to the conclusion that, as well as barley wine being effectively meaningless (it doesn’t even mean “any strong beer”, since no one seems to categorise Imperial stout as barley wine), there’s no such style as “old ale”, either. Not historically, anyway. From which it follows that (and this really will kick the hornet’s nest) there’s no such style as “mild”*.

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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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Apologies for my absence

To those of you who have noticed that nothing has been happening here for almost six months, apologies for my absence – this has been caused mostly by the need to try to earn a living, which rather came before beer blogging, and which has taken me a long way away from home (and sources of varied good beer).

However I’m delighted to say that I’ve found a “printed copy” publisher for Amber Gold and Black, my book on the history of British beer styles, which appeared as an e-book last year and which is due to appear as a “proper” book in the UK in April next year – it’s already on Amazon UK, why not pre-order it now and help the cash flow at The History Press, my publisher?

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London: from brewing hero to practically zero

Those few of you who caught my 15 seconds of fame tonight on the London ITN regional television news, talking about the announcement that AB InBev is going to close the Mortlake brewery, I’ll tell you a secret: that wasn’t the Thames at Mortlake behind me. It was actually about nine miles down river at Wapping, which is where I was when ITN got hold of me and asked if I’d be interviewed about the history of the brewery.

I was still within a short distance of two once-huge London breweries, though, Courage, hard by Tower Bridge, closed 1981, and Hoare’s, between Wapping and St Katharine’s Docks, which had been one of the “Big Twelve” London porter brewers, and which shut in 1934. Hoare’s has, effectively, vanished: Courage’s brewery still stands, a monument to London’s former position as one of the great brewing cities; probably, in the 19th century, the greatest brewing city in the world, which was the point I was trying to make to the ITN man.

The closure of Mortlake means the disappearance of the last big brewery left in London. In 1971, the year Camra was founded, the capital boasted a still-magnificent line-up of well-established giant brewers: Whitbread, on the edge of the City, founded 1742; Truman’s, in Brick Lane, dating back to at least 1666; further out in the East End, Mann’s in the Whitechapel Road, built 1808, and their near-neighbours Charrington’s in the Mile End Road, first recorded in 1770. Courage was still brewing at Southwark after more than 180 years, Guinness, the newest big brewer to open in London, was producing a river of stout at its 35-year-old Park Royal brewery. Out in the suburbs to the East, Ind Coope was making beer at Romford, and Watney’s still had Mortlake, renamed the Stag brewery after the company’s original Stag brewery in Westminster, closed 1959.

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