It’s a beer that’s both new and extremely old. Courage Imperial Russian Stout boasts a lineage that stretches back into the 18th century and takes in a Russian empress and a handful of London’s most famous brewing names – but the last time it was available in the UK was in the early 1990s, when Courage decided to stop making it.
But now, as beers brewed to historic recipes are increasingly fashionable, it’s on sale again. Bedford brewery Wells & Young’s (who acquired the rights to the beer some years ago) produced the first vintage for almost 20 years. Well, actually, it’s the second vintage: virtually all of the bottles produced in an initial run in 2011 went to the United States, the heartland of modern brewing, where the entire shipment sold out in 10 minutes.
The famous stout’s relaunch comes at a particularly opportune moment. Both long-established brewers, such as Fuller’s and St Austell, and newer concerns, such as the Kernel and Partizan (both of whom brew in Bermondsey, southeast London), are making beers based on old recipes.
The main reason they’re doing so is because these beers are complex and delicious. The 2012 vintage of the new Courage IRS is a rich, bitter, impressively strong (10 per cent ABV) brew, with flavours of coffee, leather and liquorice.
Nonetheless, says Jim Robertson, head brewer at Wells & Young’s, more timorous drinkers shouldn’t be intimidated. “The flavour is actually quite a lot less challenging than some of the beers of similar strengths you get around the world,” he says. “It’s actually quite smooth, very drinkable.”
Few know this beer better than Robertson, who first made it in the late 1970s at Courage’s old base near Tower Bridge, where his brewing career began. While the beer was popular, so legend has it, at the court of Catherine the Great of Russia (hence the name), the current version sticks closely to the recipe that was popular when Robertson was starting out.
Those who want to taste something more akin to what might have been drunk in British brewing’s heyday should try the Kernel’s 1856 Imperial Brown Stout, based on a recipe from Barclay Perkin’s, the brewery that produced Imperial Russian Stout for many years before a merger with Courage in the 1950s.
“It’s intriguing to figure out what it might have been like to be drinking beer 150 years ago,” says Evin O’Riordain, head brewer at the Kernel.
“But there’s no way that we have any idea as to how ours would approximate to the beer drunk then. We can stick as closely as possible to a recipe but it’s such a small part of the process; the technology behind it, the equipment that they used, is different. Even the ingredients have changed.”
One man who’s done more than most to shine light on old recipes is beer historian Ron Pattinson, who has worked with brewers in Europe and across the Atlantic. West London brewer Fuller’s turned to Pattinson when they began to produce their Past Masters series, which revives recipes from their own brew book.
“There seems to be a greater interest now,” he says. “It interests people because it’s not what they expect: they think ‘Oh well, the beers weren’t that different in the past’. But it’s not the case. Take mild: people think they know what it is, it’s 3 per cent alcohol and dark. Then you give them a mild that is 10 and a half per cent alcohol and a nice golden colour, they think ‘what’s going on here?’”
Indeed, says Pattinson, a thorough investigation of old brewing books gives the lie to the idea that we are living in a particularly innovative time for brewing. “There’s very little that’s new,” he says. “People keep think they’re coming up with clever stuff, but there’s loads of crazy stuff that people have done in the past that has never been repeated.”
London brewers, it seems, are particularly interested in historic beers. This should be no surprise, says Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling: at one point the city was the centre of brewing, not only in the UK but across the world.
“All the best porters came from London,” he says. “We sent it to Ireland, they copied it, they couldn’t get the expensive roasted malt so because it was cheaper. They made a beer that became dry, unlike the London porters, which were sweeter. The next time you see an Irishman drinking Guinness, tell him he’s drinking a cheap imitation of London beer. See what he says back to you!”
Unlike Guinness, Courage Imperial Russian Stout is a beer that can be laid down in the same way as a good wine. Robertson, who has plans to revive other historic beers (starting with McEwan’s Scotch Ale) has one piece of advice for those with a bottle of this remarkable dark beer. “I wouldn’t drink it straight away,” he says. “It needs to be six -months to a year old before its peaked – and it can last for a lot longer than that.”
Will Hawkes is the author of ‘Craft Beer London’ (Vespertine Press)