To me the list would probably include Pilsner Urquell, Czech Budweiser, Guinness, Worthington White Shield, Newcastle Brown Ale and Westmalle Grand Cru. There would have to be an IPA and an APA in there too, but that’s for another day.
Sometimes, despite their classic status, some brews fall by the wayside, a prime example of this being ‘Pete’s Wicked Ale’ which, while being a personal favourite, sadly ceased brewing before I could review it for this site. And sometimes they’re resurrected by different brewers; a prime example of this being Samisclaus, brewed by Hurlimann Brewery of Switzerland between 1980 and 1997, it was resurrected in 2000 by Schloss Eggenberg in Austria.
The brew that, in my mind at least, is missing from the aforementioned list is Courage Imperial Russian Stout, one of a number of Stouts and Porters brewed in 18th century London. It was originally brewed by Thrales at their ‘Anchor’ brewery and sold to Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, as a porter “that would keep seven years”. Legend has it that the high alcoholic strength was necessary to prevent the beer from freezing in the temperatures of the Baltic Sea on its voyage to Russia, and while a few extra percent of alcohol wouldn’t influence the freezing point of an ale that much, who am I to question such a legend?
The export process was far from straight-forward, involving a sea journey across the Baltic to Danzig (now Gdansk, in Poland) and onwards from there. In 1869 Napoleon blockaded the port, and an enterprising Belgian (Le Coq) started supplying ‘Imperial Stout’ from Belgium, not requiring a sea voyage, and eventually building a brewery in what is now Estonia.
The term ‘Imperial Russian Stout’ lived on in English brewing and drinking circles, and the Thrales brewery was taken over by the Barclay-Perkins brewery and then by Courage. It’s the mighty 10% ABV ‘Courage Imperial Russian Stout’ that became the stuff of legend here in Blighty. That is, until the take-over of Courage by the Scottish-Courage consortium (later Scottish & Newcastle, then Heineken) and brewed at the John Smiths brewery in Yorkshire, until the brew was quietly dropped in the late 1990’s.
In 2007 the rights to the various ‘Courage’ brands were bought by the Wells & Young brewery and they set about recreating – with Jim Robertson, the former Courage London brewmaster – the ‘Courage Best’ and ‘Courage Directors’ brews. Brewing of the resurrected Imperial Stout started in March 2011 and the brew was re-launched at the Great American Beer Festival in September of that year.
Okay, so there’s a shed-load of history in there, what (I hear you ask) does it taste like?
Was it worth the wait?
Courage Imperial Stout, pours blacker than night, possibly the darkest brew I’ve ever sipped, there’s not much head, and no noticeable lacing, but the nose more than makes up for it, it’s rich and tarry.
The flavour is rich and warming, ideal for a chilly Russian night. We’re talking coffee, ristretto coffee, no namby-pamby espresso here, and hints of the darkest, purest chocolate.
This is the real deal, again with hints of tar and resin, there are chocolate, amber and pale ale malts in there with, copious quantities of Hersbrucker and Styrian Goldings hops.
Those hops suggest that it should keep for up to fifteen years.
This is indeed one of Britain’s classic brews; it’s like holding a glass of history, you can sense the link to smoky taverns, with wood panelled walls and blazing log fires. I can’t say whether it’s an authentic recreation of the original, but on a dark an stormy night it makes for fine sipping.
Although at 10% ABV, it’s one to be sipped with caution.
It’s a classic, it has to merit five stars.
Legend has it that Catherine the Great was a woman of famous ‘appetites’, I certainly can’t fault her taste in beer.