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 Imperial Stout cocktail and other titbits

I used to think Americans said “tidbit” because of some squeamishness over the word “tit”, but in fact “tidbit” is the older or original version, and it is the British who have been the lexical corrupters. (And in any case, if you believe the Oxford English Dictionary, which I’m not sure I do, “tit = breast” has only been in use since the 1920s.)

'Imperial double stout porter' from 1822

Anyway, here are some tidbits/titbits that don’t individually make up a full blog post on their own, including an excellent antedating for “Barclay, Perkins and Co’s imperial double stout porter, from the butt, ditto in bottle” from 1822 in the wonderfully named Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser on Saturday December 21, 1822. So now we know that a version of Imperial Stout, brewed by Barclay Perkins, was being exported as far away as Tasmania in the early 1820s.

I also tripped over a recipe for a beer cocktail including Russian Stout which, according to the Daily Express in February 1941, used to be served at Romano’s in the Strand, a once-famous London theatreland restaurant that opened in the 1870s on the site of what is now Stanley Gibbons’s stamp-collectors’ shop (or is that Stanley Stamp’s gibbon-collectors’ shop?), and where, it is claimed, Edwardian gallants really did drink champagne from a beautiful chorus girl’s shoe. If fizz flavoured with female foot was not to your taste, then Bendi, Romano’s head cellarman, had a favourite concoction he called “The Three Angels” – a mixture of Russian Stout, Bass No 1 barley wine and “ordinary bottled beer”, this last ingredient, I’m guessing, being pale ale, which must have given Three Angels an abv of about 8 per cent. King Edward VII, who was a regular patron at Romano’s when he was Prince of Wales, “loved a beaker of it”, according to the Express. Probably tasted better out of a chorus girl’s shoe than champagne, too. It was a batch of Bass No 1, of course, that Tedward helped brew when he visited Bass in 1902, and which was bottled as King’s Ale.

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Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

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

Pub passion personified

Nick Sharpe of the St John's Tavern, pub enthusiast

It’s an ill wind that doesn’t have a silver lining – or something like that. Anyway, I’m delighted to be able to give you a chance to see and hear Nick Sharpe of the St John’s Tavern, Archway, North London, give one of the most passionate expositions on the British pub, its present and its future, that I’ve heard. What I particularly enjoy about Nick’s views on pubs is that they are clearly rooted in a love of pubs’ past, without being fetishistic about it: he’s running a 21st century business at the St John’s Tavern, he delights in being able, thanks to help from English Heritage and his local council, to reflect some of the pub’s 19th century origins in the renovations that have been carried out, but he’s not about to turn it back into the multi-bar warren it would have been when it opened, because we no longer live in a society where Public Bar Man never mixes with Saloon Bar Man.

Click on the video you’ll find here, ignore (sorry) the first two minutes 45 second of the video – Jack Adams is a nice guy, but he’s a better interviewer and video maker than presenter, go and make a cup of tea, take the top off a bottle of beer or something until he’s finished – and then come back and listen to Nick talk with feeling and depth about pubs, about why he did what he did with the St John’s Tavern, and what he would like to do with it if his pubco would just let him.

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Restive about festivals

I’ve been going to beer festivals for 30 years, I’ve served behind the bar at them, I’ve organised them, and I’m still not sure I really like them.

The problem is that whatever time you go, it’s always Friday night – that is, the bars are packed, it takes ages to get served, often the beers you want have run out, it’s frequently too noisy for conversation, and you can’t find a seat to sit down.

All the same, this is the first time in almost two decades that I’ve missed the opening of the Great British Beer Festival – having to fit in with someone else’s unbreakable holiday commitments meant I was on a Greek beach (of which more in another blog). One of the benefits of being a member of the Zythographers’ Union is that you get to blag your way in to the GBBF trade session on the Tuesday afternoon, which means there will always be a large number of people there I haven’t seen since, in some cases, the previous year’s GBBF, so that’s always fun. This year I didn’t get back to Britain until the Thursday night, so the one GBBF session I managed was Friday early evening.

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