The old London brewing firm of Courage and Barclay has decided, after all, to resume the brewing of its Russian Imperial Stout, a noble product that had been under sentence of death as being too expensive to make and not in wide enough demand. Indeed, brewing was suspended throughiout 1964 and 1965, although this beer in the past had been breweed each year, just before Christmas. The directors have now come to the conclusion that they owe something to tradition, and in the summer of 1966 a beer that was first brewed in the late eighteenth century will be brewed again. On hearing of the reprieve I went along to what are still called "the Russian cellars," at the Courage and Barclay headquarters by Southwark Bridge to sink a celebratory bottle.
Russian Imperial Stout is so called because, as long ago as 1795, Catherine the Great, according to one of her contemporaries, "ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking and that of her Court." The beer was brewed in recent years at the Courage brewery in Horsleydown Lane and matured in the Russian cellars for two months in cask, before being given another year in bottle.
The firms visitors' bar stood me a bottle of the 1962 Russian Stout. This is not the latest brew, but is the one that most pubs would have that stock it. The 1963, bottled in 1964, is barely ready yet, and those publican who buy it will be giving it a little more bottle-age than the minimum of a year that it gets in the Russian cellars. Russian Stout is sold in "nip" bottles that hold about one-third of a pint, as against the half-pint of a standard beer bottle - quite enough to be going on with, for Russian Stout is about twice as strong as Guinness, half as strong again as Bass Barley Wine, and the nip is said to pack the same alcoholic punch as four whiskies. Nobody, my expert hosts told me, could floor more than four at one go and not show the effects.
A smooth, rich, velvety depth-charge of a drink - sweet, but with the sweetness only of the malt, for there is no added sugar, and yet with the bitter tang of hops. "Not quite so great a brew as the 1951," said one of my companions, going on to explain that slight differences of temperatures and humidity during the brewing and bottling can affect the quality of a fine beer, and that the year's climate can influence the quality of the malt.
This led him to invite me down to the Russian cellars to taste one or two that had been specially bottled and long matured. First the 1957, poured from a pint champagne bottle that had been corked and wired, exactly like champagne, and matured lying on its side. (Beer which is crown-corked - that is, with a metal closure - must stand up; if it has an ordinary cork, it must lie down like wine) The cork came out with a pop, and the beer frothed creamily into the glass, dark and rich. Smoother than the 1962, I thought, but it was surpassed by the 1948 which came from a full-sized champagne bottle, smelled like burgundy and drank like liquid silk.
My brewer friends told me that they could not always be sure that a bottle as old as this would be as good, but that Russian Stout had a great capacity for ageing. (In 1796, Farington recorded in his diary that he drank some of the Porter from Thrale's brewhouse - the same beer - and that "it was specially brewed for the Empress of Russia and would keep seven years.") Clearly, it is capable of keeping - and improving - over a much longer period, and I asked whether these champagne bottles of Russian Stout were generally available for laying down like claret. Alas, no, but the ordinary nips keep quite well - I have recorded in these columns how, earlier this year, I took a nip of 1958 Russian Stout and one of 1961 over to Dublin, to drink with Bryan Guinness. We found the 1958 in better condition, with more life and sparkle, but the 1961 had the more style and the cleaner finish.
The authorities in Courage and Barclay's Russian cellar told me how to make extra sure that the nips would keep really well. This is done by covering the crown cork with ordinary sealing wax, to make the bottle really airtight, making sure you get under the skirts - if you will pardon the expression - of the cork.
"Cyril Ray Cracks a Bottle of 1948 Russian Stout" an article published in Queen magazine.
My first though on reading this was; "I wonder if any of these champagne-bottled Russian Stouts still exist and where the hell can I get my hands on one." Anyone any clues?