Imperial Russian Stout, Sussex
Our history as a nation of seafaring traders and beer lovers is seen in two distinct types of ale. The story of IPA - Indian Pale Ales – is commonplace, and the product still readily available. Imperial Russian Stout, at one time exported in volume to Russia and the Baltic States, is far less well known, and you need to look hard to find any these days.
British beers were brewed for flavour and strength in the 18th and 19th centuries, with Porter and Stout enjoyed by the masses. Head brewers long departed must spin in their graves as ‘lite’ (the very word is annoying) beers become fashionable. Better drink water and breathe in your partner’s perfume or cologne.
Imperial Russian Stout represented perhaps the zenith of that search for strength and flavour combined. Legend has it that the beer was made extra-strong to prevent it freezing on the long sea voyage through the Baltic, or in store in distinctly cold climes. The most famous fan of the beer was Catherine the Great, whose household bought it by the barrel.
For many years the most celebrated example of the style was Barclay’s, brewed at the Anchor Brewery in Southwark , which with takeovers and brewery closures ended up as Courage’s Imperial Russian Stout brewed by John Smith’s in Tadcaster , a product dropped in the 1990s as too niche and un-commercial – perhaps the need to mature the beer didn’t appeal to their accountants. Some of us still mourn the loss of those exquisite nip bottles. Sam Smith ’s in the same town still brew what they term Imperial Stout, and although it is excellent at 7 per cent ABV it’s not quite the full deal.
Happily Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes has maintained the tradition with their Imperial Extra Double Stout, 9 per cent ABV, bottle-conditioned, and packed with taste. The very look of the thing as it pours, black and oleaginous, is enticing, the dark-brown froth forming a disciplined head. Chocolate flavours abound; hugely roasty-malty, and with a massive bitter hit that comes from the generous use of hops in the process; dried fruit flavours come through too, and hints of coffee. This is ideal as an end of meal drink, something to sip (definitely not a session beer) and savour, or even as an accompaniment to strong cheese at the end of a meal – Stilton loves it.
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