Beer is best drunk when it’s freshly brewed*. There, I’ve said it. It may not be the most sensible contention to make at the outset of an article which sets out to assess the merits of a beer that’s been knocking around for years, but it’s probably worth setting out my stall.
It is, I’d suggest, fundamental to the success of homo sapiens as a species that we’ve found ways to eke out the nutritional benefits of food and drink beyond the point where it would naturally go off, in order to see us through the lean times.
Fat, sugar and, yes, alcohol have all played their part as effective means of preservation, and so it’s worth noting the irony that, as medical science explores the limits of human longevity, they’ve also been identified as contributing to our inevitable decline. Back in the day when outrunning a dire wolf or sabre toothed tiger was more of a consideration, the longer term implications, compared to the advantage of being able to eat preserved grain or fruit whatever the season, were less important.
The human capacity for self-delusion, as well as our willingness to fall for a well-targeted PR campaign, means that over the course of time we’ve come to believe that the mouldy blue veins in an aged stilton or the cloying, musty flavours of an old wine are a badge of quality rather than a by-product of preservation. And let’s not even get started on the implications of aging meat and game to the point of putrefaction, then charging a premium for it.
Focusing on beer, at some point quite soon after our ancestors discovered the joys of beer, possibly even the next morning as they surveyed the empty crude stone vessels that had until recently held the unexpected elixir of the harvest, they decided it would be a good idea to try and make the next batch last a bit longer.
Knock it on a few dozen millennia, and there’s no shortage of people ready to tell you that beer that’s been barrel aged, bottle conditioned, cellar stored, highly hopped or any of the many other methods that human ingenuity has come up with to keep beer drinkable, is better than a cool, fresh pint straight out of the brewing vessel. It’s not*. Aged beer has its joys, of course, but the compromises of preservation have contributed to the myths, I’d suggest.
Imperial Russian Stout is a case in point. Surely it’s the emperor’s new clothes in a bottle? Even the most cursory examination of the various wars, pogroms, sieges and massacres undertaken by the imperial Russian family, never mind their laissez-faire attitude to intimate relations with livestock and mad monks, would suggest that their opinion on what constitutes a decent pint shouldn’t carry much credibility.
Having said all that, we are where we are, and I’m certainly not saying aged beers don’t have their charm. So, in my stash is a bottle of Courage Imperial Russian Stout dating back to 2012. At that point, Bedford brewer Charles Wells had recently acquired the rights to the Courage brand and beers, and revived this famous strong beer.
Avoiding any tasting notes or information other than what’s on the label, the beer was bottled at 10% ABV and “enjoys a rich, espresso body with pear overtones and an intriguing fresh, smokey, fruity finish.” The best before date is 16/08/25, suggesting that eight years could actually be a bit young for this one, but, hey ho:
Appearance: There’s a reassuring puff of carbon dioxide as the bottle opens. The beer pours clear, but its dense, ebony colour means no light gets through. The head lingers on the side of the glass, showing a rich, oily viscosity as it slips back into the beer. It shouts “luxury”, and the appearance alone helps to explain why this beer was a valued commodity seen as worth the cost of a 1700 mile journey from Britain to Moscow.
Aroma: The aroma is dominated by bitter coffee and dry sherry, with a mature sweetness underneath – for me, it’s the richness of dates and toffee apples rather than the freshness of pear mentioned on the label.
Taste: The beer is noticeably bitter, but it’s the rich coffee bitterness of roasted malt that dominates, rather than any strong hop character. In the mouth, my tastebuds keep searching for the sweet notes that the aroma promised. They’re there, but it takes the third or fourth sip to find them behind the dominant bitterness.
Overall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.
So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.
For a detailed look at the history of both Imperial Stout in general and the Courage version in particular, there are links below to articles by my good friend Martyn Cornell, whose attention to detail and historical accuracy when it comes to beer history more than makes up for my ramblings and conjecture:
*As always, all views expressed are those of the author and other, equally valid opinions are available. Just not here.