Tag Archives: Imperial stout

The Portman Group is trying to destroy Britain’s proud history of strong ales

Fabulous reproduction of a classic 19th century brew that the Portman Group wishes to see banned

It is as well the Portman Group wasn’t around when Admiral Sir Edward Belcher was fitting out his expedition to the Arctic in 1852 to try to find out what had happened to Sir John Franklin and his gallant men, lost on their voyage in search of the North West Passage seven years earlier. The Portman Group would have tried to tell Sir Edward that the Arctic Ale he was taking with him to sustain his men, brewed by Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent to around 11.25 per cent abv and shipped in “reputed quarts”, a whistle under 75cl, smashed its guidelines, being 8.4 units of alcohol in a single container, or more than twice as much as was permissible. Sir Edward would doubtless have replied in sailorly fashion, leaving everybody’s ears severely scorched.

The Portman Group’s “Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks”, which has just been updated, is fundamentally an exercise in arse-protecting by the drinks industry, an attempt through “self-regulation” to persuade the government not to listen to the nanny-state neo-prohibitionists who would like, in lieu of total prohibition, as many restrictions on the sale of alcohol as possible, accompanied by as much tax as the market will bear. The group, the self-styled “drinks industry watchdog”, is there to assure politicians that the makers of alcohol are doing sufficient to prevent harm caused by alcohol for there to be no need for any more government legislation.

Unfortunately you can never satisfy the wowsers enough without banning alcohol altogether, and the Portman Group appears to be incapable of standing up to people like the neo-prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies and pointing out that whatever harm alcohol does, it brings much pleasure to a far greater number of people than it hurts. The result is the pursuit by the group of policies that will actively reduce the legitimate pleasure possible, in particular, from the consumption of strong beers such as barley wines and imperial stouts, with their massive depths of flavours, apparently under the misapprehension that the only people who want to drink a beer over seven per cent ABV are tramps sitting on park benches, and that tramps need to be prevented from getting drunk

Duvel Barrel Aged: one of a range of strong bottled beers that faces a Portman Group red card

SIBA, the small brewers’ group, has been getting seriously upset at changes in the new guidelines over the strength of beers, with its chief executive, Mike Benner, declaring that they “threaten new, innovative speciality beer styles like Imperial stouts, porters, IPAs and British interpretations of traditional strong Belgian styles,” and “SIBA is disappointed the Portman Group is pressing ahead to introduce new guidance, which says that ‘single serve’, non-resealable containers shouldn’t contain more than four units of alcohol.”

But this isn’t new at all: the attack on strong beers has actually been Portman Group policy for years – the guidelines already specifically stated that “putting in excess of four units in a non-resealable single-serve container indirectly encouraged immoderate consumption of alcohol, contrary to rule 3.2(f).” Carlsberg was found in breach of the guidelines in 2015 over its 500ml cans of nine per cent abv Special Brew, which contained 4.5 units of alcohol, which is why it is now only available in the UK in 440ml cans at 7pc abv, which is three units.

That ober dicta was based on the Chief Medical Officers’ drinking guidelines, which, at the time, suggested no more than four units of alcohol for men per day. When the CMOs came out with new guidelines in 2016 which dropped the daily limit in favour of a weekly one, the rug was tugged sharply from under the Portman Group’s justification for ruling against Special Brew, since producers could argue that as long as a drinker wasn’t having a can every day, there was no problem. They haven’t said so, but I’d bet what worried the Portman Group after the CMOs changed their line was having to argue in court in support of a four-unit limit per can or bottle if they were challenged.

In its summary of the responses to the consultation document it put out before the new guidelines were formulated – I recommend reading it – the Portman Group declared that it has decided that in future “containing more than four units becomes a contributory rather than an absolute factor: if the producer is able to demonstrate that mitigating factors should be taken into account – for instance, premium quality of the product, whether the product is typically decanted/shared, price at which it is typically sold, accompanying promotional material, et cetera.” In other words, convince us you’re an aspirational, upmarket product, preferably designed to be shared, and not tramp juice meant for solitary sipping while surrounded by pigeons, and we’ll think about letting you off. So in fact the new guidelines represent a slight relaxation of the previous restrictions, and if Carlsberg were to print “please share responsibly” on cans of Special Brew it might, perhaps, get away with putting the size of the cans back to 500ml and the strength up to nine per cent again. (Errr – though probably not …)

A 12 per cent abv Thomas Hardy Ale in a 33cl bottle would just squeak in under Portman Group guidelines

However, the Portman Group is still declaring that “single-serve, non-resealable containers that contain upwards of six units will be difficult to justify, even with mitigating factors,” with this upper limit “in line with UK binge drinking measure which is currently set at six units of alcohol in a single session for men and women.” It says its research shows that while nearly two thirds of people think a 75cl bottle of wine is for sharing, fewer than half think the same about a 75cl bottle of beer, making that bottle “single-serve”, according to its rules, and thus a container that should not have more than six units of alcohol inside. If a 75cl bottle of beer is “likely” to be regarded as designed to be drunk by one person, this would rule out any beer over 8 per cent abv in a 75cl bottle.

Among the beers that break the new Portman Group guidelines, and therefore face a potential ban, by being stronger than eight per cent and sold in 75cl bottles, are beautiful brews from the US, such as Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops, or Local 2, Rogue’s XS Old Crustacean barley wine and Lost Abbey’s 10 Commandments; a rake of great beers from Italian craft brewers, who go for 75cl bottles in a big way – pun semi-intended – including the wonderful Xyauyù Barrel from the Italian brewer Baladin; and a fair number of beers from the Netherlands and Belgium, including Chimay Grand Reserve, De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis (and several other De Molen beers), Duvel Barrel Aged (I had some of the third iteration of that earlier this week: excellent beer, like oak floorboards smeared with blood oranges), and Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux.

There are not so many examples of big beers in big bottles from the UK (indeed, not the least problematical aspect of this policy is that since it vastly disproportionally affects overseas producers, and the Portman Group is funded by UK producers, there is a very good argument for saying that it represents an attempt at an illegal restraint of trade – not that that may matter so much in a post-Brexit world). Sadly, unlike Belgium or the Netherlands, Britain has long lost that tradition of hefty strong stouts and barley wines in anything but nips: 33cl at best. Even a 12 per cent beer in a 33cl bottle just misses a rap on the knuckles from the Portman Group, at 3.96 units. But half a degree over that and you’ll be on the carpet and asked to explain yourself: what mitigating factors are there that we should wave you through and let your beer be sold to responsible adults perfectly able to make their own purchasing decisions without nanny hovering?

A £5 bottle of 12 per cent abv wine? No problem at all with that, sir – would you like it wrapped?

And if you’re thinking of reproducing great beers from the past such as Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, in the original style of bottle, to give a good change of some bottle-age (because smaller bottles age worse than larger onea, for a variety of reasons), fuggedaboutit: you’ll be red-carded as soon as some do-gooder spots your beer on the shelf and grasses you up to the lasses and lads at 20 Conduit Street. The result is, indeed, as Mike Benner says, that innovation by British brewers is being cramped: we had a long history in this country of super-strong beers, from the thumping pale ales that the squirearchy used to brew on their estates in the 18th century as a substitute for bandy during our many years of war with France to the huge Burton Ales we exported to Russia and (somewhat surprisingly) Australia, and, of course, all those thumping stouts that eventually earned the name “imperial”. But if the Portman Group prevails, anyone trying to reproduce those beers from the past in any bottle size worth laying down will have to prepare a lengthy brief justifying themselves for daring to exceed four units a bottle. It seems clear the “watchdog” is hoping its barking will scare away strong beers entirely.

I cannot avoid seeing a strong streak of snobbism in this. The Portman Group gives the impression that it still sees beer as an inferior drink, and beer drinkers as people who need protecting from themselves. My local off-licence will sell you two 75cl bottles of 12 per cent abv Spanish red wine for the equivalent of £5 a bottle. If someone were selling large bottles of 11.5 per cent Arctic Ale at that price, there would be howls, from the Portland Group to the Daily Mail. But it’s OK: wine drinkers are nice people like us, and don’t need to be policed.

Zabeerglione, or flip your way into 2019

If you’re having friends over for a new year’s eve meal this evening, you’re wondering what to make for dessert and you have a bottle of super-strong ale or stout in the house, can I suggest – zabeerglione!

This is a spin on zabaglione (or zabaione), the classic Italian dessert made with whipped egg yolks, sugar and marsala, the fortified, generally sweet wine from Sicily. Using beer instead of marsala, or sherry, pushes the dish in the direction of the ale flip, a traditional British winter hot drink using beaten eggs, heated ale, spirits and spices.

Any strong (over 10 per cent abv) well-flavoured beer will work. I’ve employed Thomas Hardy Ale with success, but I particularly like the results of using Fuller’s Imperial Stout: the roasty, bitter flavours of the beer meld well with the sweet, creamy egg-and-sugar mixture, and if you follow the suggestion of placing cooked peach slices at the bottom of the glass you will get a hit of acidity from the fruit at the very end that rounds the experience off. It’s filling, warming, settling and satisfying, and will leave your guests with a gentle glow as this – interesting – year comes to an end.

Zabeerglione needs to be served as soon as it is made, but it should take no more than 10 minutes, and your guests can come and watch if they like: the transformations are fun.

Utensils
Whisk
Metal mixing bowl
Pan large enough to fit the mixing bowl in without the bottom of the bowl touching the simmering water below
Large wine glasses or stemmed beer glasses

Ingredients
8 egg yolks
150g sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar*
250ml strong ale or stout

2 peaches, sugar

Serves four (greedy) to eight

*Vanilla sugar is made by keeping vanilla pods in a jar of sugar for at least a month, and should be in every good cook’s store cupboard. If you don’t have any, adding a drop of vanilla essence into the mix will do, I suppose …

Method

Slice the peaches (or nectarines), boil just enough water in a saucepan to cover the peaches, adding two tablespoons of sugar, and cook the peach slices in the boiling water until soft – perhaps five to ten minutes. Set aside. (This can be done early.)

Set a pan of water to simmer. Whisk the yolks, sugar and vanilla sugar together in the metal bowl until the mixture is a light lemon-yellow colour. Whisk in the ale or stout, pouring slowly. Place the bowl over the pan of simmering water and continue whisking vigorously until the mixture has rise in volume and is smooth and fluffy.

Arrange four to six slices of cooked peach in the bottom of each glass and pour the mixture on top. Serve straight away.

Enjoy! And the very best in 2019 to you all: it’s going to be an interesting year, beer-wise, at Cornell Towers, I can tell you now.

Imperial stout zabeerglione

Fuller’s Imperial Stout – the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months?

Imperial stout blurredIs Fuller’s Imperial Stout the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months? It didn’t stir a lot of enthusiasm when it appeared last autumn: much muttering about the beer being too sweet, very little character, “a bit anonymous”, not drinking to its 10.7 per cent abv, not worth its £7-plus a bottle, not worth buying again. An air of disappointment settled down around it, a feeling that an Imperial Stout from the Griffin brewery, with its reputation for terrific tasty brews, really ought to have been much more of a sock-fryer than this beer was.

Fair? I tried the Imperial Stout myself when it first came out in September (IIRC it was a free bottle actually given to me by John Keeling, Fuller’s head brewer) and yes, it was over-sweet and shallow. I wasn’t particularly surprised, though: this was a strong, dark, bottle-conditioned beer that had only been brewed four months earlier, and was barely out of the maturing tanks. To expect it to be anything other than one-dimensional at that age was like expecting a still-sopping newborn to show the depth and maturity of a 40-year-old. There was no reason to think this beer would not improve considerably as it aged, and the yeasts in the bottle munched away at those heavier sugars that were currently making it taste so sweet. So, feeling flush just before Christmas, I invested in a case, to see if this ugly duckling would turn into a black swan.

My feelings had been strengthened when John Keeling himself tweeted in November about the Imperial Stout: “Hang on to it – it will be better in 6 months”. That’s this coming May, at which stage it will be a year old. But how’s it tasting now? Already a lot better than it was in September, is my opinion. It’s still sweet, but there’s a complexity starting to appear, with thoughts of liquorice toffee, golden syrup and plain chocolate digestive biscuits. (Rose buds? If you say so.) There is still little hint that you are drinking a 10.7 per cent abv brew, but it’s a very smooth sipping beer with a full, slightly peppery mouthfeel. It’s also a beer that needs to breathe a bit, at least at this stage of its ageing: the complexity becomes more apparent the longer the beer is in your glass. It’s also still clearly, to me, a beer that will happily benefit from yet more time being left alone in a darkened room.

If you have a bottle of Fuller’s Imperial Stout, my advice is not to open it until at least the end of May – and I don’t think it will do you or the beer any harm to wait until November. If you have two bottles, try one this April or May and the other next April or May. If you’ve been put off buying it by the bad reviews in some places, I’ll tell you what: buy two bottles, drink one in May, if you don’t like it, I’ll buy the other one off you.

The big problem has been, I think, that we’re not used to beers that don’t deliver their best as soon as we buy them. We understand ageing in other foods: cheese, for example, or meat. I know a restaurant in Hong Kong, the Blue Butcher in Hollywood Road, Central, that has a glass-walled meat store lined with Himalayan pink salt bricks, visible from the tables, where you can ask for your own personal virgin female Japanese wagyu beef steak to be dry-aged for an extra six weeks until it and you are ready. But we’re not yet up to walking into a bar and saying: “I’d like an Imperial Stout, please, aged for another nine months: I’ll be back in December to drink it.” Instead, brewers have been mostly ageing their beers that require ageing for us – Fuller’s keeps some of its Brewer’s Reserve series literally for years before releasing them on to the market when they’re ready. With Imperial Stout it didn’t, to the confusion of many.

Another problem, for some, is the price: £7 a bottle on the Fuller’s website right now. That’s the same as three bottles of Chiswick bitter. But it’s no coincidence that a bottle of 10.7% abv Imperial Stout contains the equivalent amount of alcohol as those three bottles of 3.5% abv Chiswick: you’re getting just the same alcoholic bang per penny whichever you buy. Which gives you more pleasure, only you can reveal.

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.

Continue reading An Imperial Stout cocktail and other titbits

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?

Pub passion personified

Nick Sharpe of the St John's Tavern, pub enthusiast

It’s an ill wind that doesn’t have a silver lining – or something like that. Anyway, I’m delighted to be able to give you a chance to see and hear Nick Sharpe of the St John’s Tavern, Archway, North London, give one of the most passionate expositions on the British pub, its present and its future, that I’ve heard. What I particularly enjoy about Nick’s views on pubs is that they are clearly rooted in a love of pubs’ past, without being fetishistic about it: he’s running a 21st century business at the St John’s Tavern, he delights in being able, thanks to help from English Heritage and his local council, to reflect some of the pub’s 19th century origins in the renovations that have been carried out, but he’s not about to turn it back into the multi-bar warren it would have been when it opened, because we no longer live in a society where Public Bar Man never mixes with Saloon Bar Man.

Click on the video you’ll find here, ignore (sorry) the first two minutes 45 second of the video – Jack Adams is a nice guy, but he’s a better interviewer and video maker than presenter, go and make a cup of tea, take the top off a bottle of beer or something until he’s finished – and then come back and listen to Nick talk with feeling and depth about pubs, about why he did what he did with the St John’s Tavern, and what he would like to do with it if his pubco would just let him.

Continue reading Pub passion personified

Restive about festivals

I’ve been going to beer festivals for 30 years, I’ve served behind the bar at them, I’ve organised them, and I’m still not sure I really like them.

The problem is that whatever time you go, it’s always Friday night – that is, the bars are packed, it takes ages to get served, often the beers you want have run out, it’s frequently too noisy for conversation, and you can’t find a seat to sit down.

All the same, this is the first time in almost two decades that I’ve missed the opening of the Great British Beer Festival – having to fit in with someone else’s unbreakable holiday commitments meant I was on a Greek beach (of which more in another blog). One of the benefits of being a member of the Zythographers’ Union is that you get to blag your way in to the GBBF trade session on the Tuesday afternoon, which means there will always be a large number of people there I haven’t seen since, in some cases, the previous year’s GBBF, so that’s always fun. This year I didn’t get back to Britain until the Thursday night, so the one GBBF session I managed was Friday early evening.

Continue reading Restive about festivals