An Imperial Stout cocktail and other titbits

I used to think Americans said “tidbit” because of some squeamishness over the word “tit”, but in fact “tidbit” is the older or original version, and it is the British who have been the lexical corrupters. (And in any case, if you believe the Oxford English Dictionary, which I’m not sure I do, “tit = breast” has only been in use since the 1920s.)

'Imperial double stout porter' from 1822

Anyway, here are some tidbits/titbits that don’t individually make up a full blog post on their own, including an excellent antedating for “Barclay, Perkins and Co’s imperial double stout porter, from the butt, ditto in bottle” from 1822 in the wonderfully named Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser on Saturday December 21, 1822. So now we know that a version of Imperial Stout, brewed by Barclay Perkins, was being exported as far away as Tasmania in the early 1820s.

I also tripped over a recipe for a beer cocktail including Russian Stout which, according to the Daily Express in February 1941, used to be served at Romano’s in the Strand, a once-famous London theatreland restaurant that opened in the 1870s on the site of what is now Stanley Gibbons’s stamp-collectors’ shop (or is that Stanley Stamp’s gibbon-collectors’ shop?), and where, it is claimed, Edwardian gallants really did drink champagne from a beautiful chorus girl’s shoe. If fizz flavoured with female foot was not to your taste, then Bendi, Romano’s head cellarman, had a favourite concoction he called “The Three Angels” – a mixture of Russian Stout, Bass No 1 barley wine and “ordinary bottled beer”, this last ingredient, I’m guessing, being pale ale, which must have given Three Angels an abv of about 8 per cent. King Edward VII, who was a regular patron at Romano’s when he was Prince of Wales, “loved a beaker of it”, according to the Express. Probably tasted better out of a chorus girl’s shoe than champagne, too. It was a batch of Bass No 1, of course, that Tedward helped brew when he visited Bass in 1902, and which was bottled as King’s Ale.

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Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

A very early Russian Stout ad from 1922

It was terrific to see a positive story on the BBC about beer, with the coverage of the Great Baltic Adventure, the project to take Imperial Russian Stout back to Russia by boat, just the way it was done 200 and more years ago. But what’s this claim here, at 1:05 by BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg, talking about the first exports of stout from England to the Baltic:

“The problem was that by the time it had got to Russia it had frozen, so the brewers back home bumped up the alcohol content to make sure it didn’t turn into ice-lollies.”

Nooooooooooooo! Please, there are enough myths about beer history already, without new ones being started. Let’s make it clear, right now: the stout exported to Russia was NOT brewed strong to stop it freezing. If it had been cold enough to freeze the beer, the ocean itself would have frozen over, and the ships wouldn’t have been able to get through. It was brewed strong because that’s the way the customers liked it.

Actually, and with respect to Tim O’Rourke, whose idea the Great Baltic Adventure was, and who roped in 11 British brewers from Black Sheep to Meantime to supply Imperial Russian Stouts to take to St Petersburg by sea, the Russians also liked another strong English brew in the 18th century, Burton Ale, the thick, sweet, brown ale brewed in Burton upon Trent and shipped out of Hull. But on March 31 1822 the Russian government introduced a new tariff that banned almost every article of British manufacture, from cotton goods to plate glass, knives and forks to cheese, umbrellas to snuff boxes – and “Shrub, Liquors, Ale and Cyder”. Porter, however – and this included what we would now call stout – was left untouched. The Burton ale trade to the Baltic was wrecked, but British porter brewers could send as much of the black stuff to St Petersburg as they wanted. Continue reading Imperial Stout – Russian or Irish?

The five worst beers I ever tasted

I try not to drink bad beer: it’s a personal policy, and generally it serves me well. Sometimes, though, you’re in a bar far from home, or at a party thrown by people you don’t know very well, and there’s nothing in sight but a dubious-looking keg fount, or a pile of cans. The triumph of hope over experience means that, generally in these circumstances, my desire for a beer, any beer, leads me to say: “Oh, go on then.” Two minutes later, I’m thinking, once again, how much I want to smack very hard the grinning fool who first smugly coined that idiot’s motto: “There are no bad beers, it’s just that some are better than others.” There are plenty of bad beers, and many are far worse than you’d believe possible.

Of course, some bad beers are born of irretrievably bad ideas. The 1990s was full of muck like Chili Beer from Garcia Brewing in New Mexico. I reviewed this for a short-lived beer magazine called The Taste, and I knew it was going to be vile as soon as I saw the whole chili in the bottle. The best bit was pouring almost all of it down the sink. Another 1990s American abomination was Jetts Lime Clear Beer. Using filtering technology to remove the molecules that give beer its colour seems entirely pointless anyway. Adding lime flavouring meant Jetts Lime Clear Beer was disgusting, as well as dumb. The aroma was like soapy drains, and it actually fizzed noisily in the glass, something no beer I have ever tried has done before or since. That was another one down the sink.

Those, however, were stupid beers. The worst kind of bad beer is when a skilled brewer delivers something that is meant to be mainstream, but is actually muck. This, then, is Cornell’s Hall of Shame: five beers made from hops, malt and yeast that – perhaps because of poor brewing, often because of poor handling – were unfinishably awful.

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The mysterious Australian Ale

IPA, or India Pale Ale, was not the only beer British brewers exported to far-away places in the 19th century. There was plenty of stout and porter shipped to the East and West Indies – and also the mysterious Australian Ale.

Pulling together the scattered references to the beer, Australian Ale appears to be a name given to “No 3” grade Burton Ale, 1080 to 1085 OG or so, around 7 or 8 per cent alcohol, stronger and, probably, slightly darker and rather sweeter than a Victorian IPA would have been.

In 1841 the Burton upon Trent brewers William and Thomas Saunders advertised in the Liverpool Mercury their “East India and Australian Beer”, “each brewed by them expressly for those markets, also the Australian Strong Ale”, doubtless hoping to catch the eyes of shippers exporting goods from Liverpool to the Antipodes. This is the earliest reference I have found to “Australian Ale” used to designate an apparent style of beer: all sorts of British brewers, including Saunders’ Burton rivals Bass and Allsopp, had been exporting to the Colonies, but none was calling its beer specifically “Australian” (and Burton Ale, brewer unnamed, had been on sale in Australia since at least 1821). This was still a time when the word “ale” generally indicated a less-hopped article than “beer” did (though “pale ale”, specifically, was by now a hoppy brew), so the “Australian Strong Ale” was likely to be less hoppy (but stronger, to make up for the lesser amount of preserving hops) than Saunders’s Australian Beer.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 1850

In April 1856 the Derby Mercury reported that three labourers “in the employ of Messers Bass and Co, brewers”, Thomas Stretton, Charles Carter and Dominic Kilkenny, were sentenced to two months in jail at Burton upon Trent Petty Sessions “for stealing seven quarts of Australian Ale, by plugging the bottom of the cask”. (One of the magistrates who put the three away was Sir Oswald Mosley, Bart., great-great grandfather of the British Fascist leader.) Which of Bass’s beers was “Australian ale”? In the 1840s and 1850s it was exporting both its No 2 (1090 or so OG) and No 3 grades of Burton Ale to Australia. But in December 1862 the medical magazine The Lancet, in a report on that year’s Great International Exhibition in South Kensington, London, talking about the beers on show, said: “Messrs Bass and Co exhibit their strong ale and their No 3 Burton or Australian ale.” The No 3 grade was also the Burton Ale that Allsopp’s exported to Australia.

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The woman who served George Orwell pints of mild

Irene Stacey and the George Orwell beer mug

Sometimes you find stuff on the internet that is just so fabulously fantastic: this is Irene Stacey, who used to serve George Orwell pints of mild in that very jug, peeps, when she was landlady of the Plough in Wallington, North Hertfordshire and he was living next door with his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, in a tiny, narrow cottage.

That jug is a classic example of English mocha ware – there’s a good account of how the tree-like decorations on mocha ware were made here – and I possess an almost identical proper pint mocha ware beer mug of the sort that must have been common in country pubs and beerhouses right up to the Second World War. I wonder if the Plough also had the salmon-pink china beer mugs Orwell praised in his classic essay from 1946 on the “ideal” English pub, The Moon Under Water? Certainly he wrote in that essay that in his opinion, “beer tastes better out of china”.

The beer Orwell would have carried home in that jug was Simpson’s dark mild from the little market town of Baldock, a few miles from Wallington. The Plough had been owned by the brewery from at least 1799, when the brewery itself was owned by the Pryor family, relatives of the Simpsons – one branch of the Pryors owned Harwood’s old brewery in Shoreditch, and later became partners in the big London porter brewery Truman Hanbury & Buxton in Brick Lane. Simpson’s lovely old Georgian-fronted brewery was acquired by Greene King in 1954, and closed in 1965 (and demolished soon after, a crime against fine architecture).

I knew the Plough – itself closed now, woe – from when I was chairman of North Herts Camra all of 30 years ago (and Colin Valentine was probably still drinking Irn Bru). It was one of dozens of little pubs that served the quiet, isolated villages of North Herts, a part of England that is astonishingly rural, despite being only 30 miles from central London, and you could still get dark mild there, albeit from Greene King’s Biggleswade brewery.

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