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.
Porter was left alone, presumably because it was the beer the Russians felt they could not duplicate: although porter was reported as being brewed in St Petersburg in 1801, there was a long-standing myth that only Thames water could make good porter, and certainly Russian porter had a bad reputation later in the 19th century. One English writer in 1841 wrote of St Petersburg that “The stuff manufactured here under the name of porter is little better than the rincings [sic] of blacking bottles.” The Russian tariff in 1822 (a similar one had been introduced in 1816, but seems not to have had any effect) had three important results as far as British brewing history was concerned: it encouraged the Burton brewers to start selling more of their Burton ale at home; it encouraged them to look for new markets abroad, which led to the first Burton-brewed India Pale Ales (or to be exact, what became known as India Pale Ales); and it encouraged the London porter brewers and their imitators to carry on brewing extremely strong stouts.
There was already a good market for porter in the Baltic: the traveller William Coxe, who went to Russia with Samuel Whitbread, son of the founder of the Chiswell Street brewery, wrote in 1784 of the Russians that “Their common wines are chiefly claret Burgundy and Champaigne [sic] and I never tasted English beer and porter in greater perfection and abundance.” The average imports of porter and English beer into St Petersburg between 1780 and 1790, according to William Tooke, writing in 1800, were worth 262,000 roubles a year, when the rouble was five to the pound sterling. Tooke also wrote of the Russian upper classes that “The ordinary table wines are Medoc and Chateau-Margot; besides porter and english ale, quas [kvass] and mead, which are always placed on the table, that the guests may help themselves when they please, without speaking to a servant.” In 1818 almost 214,000 bottles of porter were exported to St Petersburg, with the figure for 1819 being just under 122,600 bottles.
St Petersburg was not the only port for porter: a writer in 1815, James Hingston Tuckey, said that London porter was also imported through Riga, and Danzig, then in Prussian Poland. This was not a one-way trade, however: the ships coming back from the Baltic brought staves of Memel oak to make beer casks with: and also isinglass, used for clearing beer. The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine in 1799 quoted from a travel book recording a journey in the “southern provinces” of Russia:
The most valuable produce of the sturgeon fishery is the isinglass prepared from their air bladders. This article is principally exported from St Petersburg to England, where it is used in the beer and porter breweries in large quantities. The English supply the Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, and French with this commodity for clarifying their wines. According to the list of exportation printed by the English factory at St Petersburg, there were exported in British vessels from 1753 to 1768 between one and 2,000 pood of isinglass; from 1769 to 1786 from two to 3,000; in late years, however, usually 4,000, and in 1788 even 6,850 pood of that article. The exportation to other countries has also amounted within these few years to more than one thousand pood. This large and almost incredible exportation has tended considerably to increase even in these last-mentioned years the price of the different qualities of this article at Astrakhan itself; and on the Exchange of St Petersburg, where, previous to the year 1778, isinglass of the best quality did not exceed thirty-six rubles a pood, it has recently been advanced to ninety rubles.
“Factory” there was being used in the sense of “trading centre”: and a pood was equal to just over 36 pounds, so 6,850 pood is a little more than 110 tons of isinglass – a lot of sturgeon swim bladders. (Just for comparison, in 1889 Barclay Perkins, then one of the biggest breweries in the world, was using just 10 tons of isinglass a year.)
The evidence is that from late in the 18th century, at least, an especially strong porter was being specifically exported to Russia. The landscape painter Joseph Farington wrote in his diary for August 20 1796: “I drank some Porter Mr Lindoe had from Thrale’s Brewhouse. He said it was specially brewed for the Empress of Russia and would keep seven years.” (“Thrale’s”, of course, was still the operating name at that time of the Anchor brewery, Southwark, controlled since 1781 by the partnership of Barclay Perkins, and “Mr Lindoe” was probably John Lindoe of Norwich, who was related to the Barclays by marriage.) A history of St Saviour’s church in Southwark in 1795 said of the local big brewer: “Thrale’s intire [that is, porter] is well known as a delicious beverage, from the frozen regions of Russia to the burning sands of Bengal and Sumatra. The empress of all the Russias is indeed so partial to porter, that she has ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking, and that of her court.”
Was that porter sent out to the Russian imperial court (and remember, “porter” at this time still covered what we would separate out today, because of its strength, as “stout”) already being called “Imperial”? The records suggest that this may be a usage that sprang up long after the beer itself was first brewed, much like India Pale Ale was an expression that appeared decades after hopped pale ales were first exported to India. And “Russian” seems not to have been attached to “Imperial Stout” until the early 20th century. Indeed, the first nation to have its name linked to Imperial stout looks to be Ireland.
The earliest use of “Imperial” to describe a beer that I have found comes from the Caledonian Mercury of February 1821, when a coffeehouse in Edinburgh was advertising “Edinburgh Ales, London Double Brown Stout and Imperial Porter, well worth the attention of Families”. So “Imperial Porter” comes before “Imperial Stout” – although to a late Georgian drinker, stout, or at least brown stout, WAS porter, just the strongest version thereof. The next also comes from the Caledonian Mercury, two years later, and this time the beers mentioned are “Best London Porter”, “Brown Stout”, “Double Brown Stout” and “Imperial Double Brown Stout”.
These are both retailers’ advertisements, and do not show what terminology the brewers themselves were using. The first evidence for THAT comes in a historic announcement made by the “great London Beer Brewers” in the first week of October 1830. The timing is hugely important: this was just over a fortnight before what was known later as the Beerhouse Act was due to come into operation. The Beerhouse Act was meant by the Duke of Wellington’s government as a massive “free trade” exercise, liberating the brewing and beer retailing businesses from perceived restrictions and barriers to entry. The Act allowed any householder who was eligible to pay the poor rate to sell beer, ale or porter (but not wine or spirits) by retail by purchasing a one-year excise licence for two guineas (£2 2s). The licensing magistrates, that is, in effect, the local gentry (supposedly the allies of the larger brewers) had no say over who could be granted one of these new beerhouse licences, unlike the “full” licence, which was under their control. The tax on beer was removed (though it stayed on malt), while the brewer’s licence was fixed at 10 shillings for the smallest operators, and only £2 for anyone producing 100 to 1,000 barrels a year. The expectation was that there would be a huge increase in the numbers of retail beer outlets, and also in the numbers of small retail brewers.
The “great London Beer Brewers”, that is, the 11 or so big London porter houses, which included the biggest brewers in the country at that time, in a reflection of the soon-to-be-lower tax on their product, and an apparent attempt to deter all the expected new beerhouse retailers, in London at least, from brewing for themselves, announced together that they would be cutting their prices by 12 shillings a barrel, equivalent to a penny a quart pot. They also made what contemporary commentators said, correctly, was the “remarkable” announcement that they were about to commence brewing ale. New readers may need telling that we were still, in the early 1830s, in the period when ale was seen as a different drink to beer, less hopped and, generally pale: the porter brewers were “beer” brewers because their product was hoppy and dark, and there was an entirely different set of specialist “ale” brewers in London at that time. The fact that the porter brewers, for the first time, started brewing ale as well in the 1830s has generally been seen (well, by me, anyway) as a reaction to the growing popularity of sweeter, less hoppy ale and the beginnings of the decline in sales of porter. But it looks from that announcement that a large part of the reason for starting to brew ale was also for the big porter brewers to give the new beerhouses even less of a reason to want to become brewers themselves, by offering them a “one-stop shop” where the beerhouse proprietors could obtain both their porter and their ale from the same supplier.
Not all the big porter brewers rushed into ale brewing in the 1830s, incidentally: Meux in Tottenham Court Road, for example, remained a porter-only brewery until 1872, and Reid’s only began brewing ales in 1877. But that’s an aside: what is relevant to this discussion is what the big London brewers called their different grades of beer and ale in their circular of October 1830 announcing the price cut. There were Porter, as 33 shillings a barrel, Stout at 43s, Double Stout at 53s – and Imperial Stout at 63s. On the other side there were X Ale at 48 shillings a barrel, XX Ale at 58s, XXX Ale at 68s – and Imperial Ale at 80s.
“Imperial” here seems to be being used simply to mean “our biggest”, with no specific reference to Russia, or just porter/stout. “Imperial” without “Russia” attached (although often with other adjectives in the mix) is a usage that carries on through the following decades: there’s a reference to “London Imperial Brown Stout” from a retailer in Southampton in 1832, for example, and “Imperial London Stout” on offer in a newspaper in 1834. In 1844 Barclay’s “Imperial Double Brown Stout” was being advertised in The Times, one of only a very few mentions I have found of Barclay’s brewing an Imperial stout in the 19th century (“IBS”, or Imperial Brown Stout, appears to be Barclay’s usual “in-house” name for the beer). Others brewed Imperial stouts too: Jenner’s of the South London brewery from at least the late 1840s to the 1880s (as I’ve mentioned before, Miles Jenner of Harvey’s is a descendant, so he is carrying on a family tradition by brewing an Imperial stout in Lewes); there was “Imperial Extra Stout” from the big London porter brewer Truman Hanbury & Buxton in 1847, at what seems to be the standard price of seven shillings for a dozen quart bottles, 75 per cent dearer than bottled porter; “Imperial Irish Stout” in 1848 (which looks to come from Davis Strangman of Waterford), Imperial Brown Stout from the Dublin brewers Findlaters in 1855; and “Dublin Imperial Invalid Stout” from Manders in 1872. (One Welsh wine and beer merchant, in Rhyl, in 1868 was claiming to sell “Guinness’s Imperial Stout”: that, I think, was definitely the retailer’s description and not the brewery’s.)
London and Dublin were not the only Imperial Stout brewers. Samuel Allsopp was advertising an Imperial Stout alongside its Burton ales and EIPA in 1865 (Bass Imperial Stout “drawn from the wood” was on sale alongside draught Bass Barley Wine and Allsopp’s Burton Ale at Klein’s Raritan House in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1901, for late Victorian American extremophiles). In 1882 the Nelson Evening Mail in New Zealand was advertising the arrival of Tennent’s Imperial Stout from Scotland. In 1900 Seth Senior’s brewery in Shepley, Yorkshire would sell you Imperial Stout at 1s 4d a gallon, the same as its IPA and Strong Ale. But London looks to have specialised in the drink. The Salisbury Hotel, Fulham, was boasting that it sold Watney’s Imperial Stout in 1886. A 19th century price list for Young’s brewery in Wandsworth (exact date unknown but probably about 1870) included draught Imperial Stout. The East End of London brewer Manns was apparently bottling an Imperial Stout in 1893, although as this was six pence a dozen pints cheaper than the 3s 6d India Pale Ale, it may not have been that strong. Whitbread’s Imperial Stout was on sale at the Admiral Keppel in Shoreditch in 1903. The little West’s brewery in Hackney, north-east London, would sell you a pin (four and a half gallons) of “Imperial stout (for invalids)” for 7s 3d, which implied an original gravity of 1080 or a little less.
But none of those advertisements talked about “Russian stout”. For part of the time 19th century brewers would not have wanted to mention Russia in connection with their products, of course: we were at war with Russia in the 1850s, an event commemorated in such pub names as the Alma, the Inkerman Arms, the Florence Nightingale and the Lord Raglan. Even ignoring the impact of the Crimean War, however, there seems to be a remarkable lack of regular correlation between “Imperial stout” and Russia in the 19th century.
Indeed, for at least one exporter of stout to Russia, the “Russian” stout appears to have been different from the “Imperial” stout. Walter Serocold, author of The Story of Watneys said of Reid’s brewery, just off the Farringdon Road in London, in the 19th century:
There was vast cellarage under the breweries to accommodate the various types of stouts and ales which had to mature in cask before consumption. Some six stouts of gravities varying from 1100° (Russian stout) to 1045° (porter) were brewed; the famous Reid’s Imperial Stout was 1080°.
That Reid’s brewed both an Imperial Stout and a Russian Stout is confirmed by Alfred Barnard’s description of the brewery in 1889, when it still had one racking store devoted entirely to XX imperial stout, and another store filled from end to end with stout for Russia, “for which this house is justly celebrated”. One place that advertised Reid’s Imperial Stout for sale was the St John’s Gate Tavern, previously the Jerusalem Tavern, in Clerkenwell in 1880.
The export trade of beer from England to Russia appears to have fallen quite early on into the hands of the firm of A. Le Coq, which dated back to 1807, and which was claiming in 1912 that its business “for a great many years” consisted “almost exclusively” of exporting “Special Stout” brewed in London and “Ale” brewed in Burton – a clue that Burton Ale continued to be popular in Russia. alongside strong stout. Le Coq’s problems were that the tax on its imports had risen from 15 kopeks a quart bottle in 1881 to 72 kopeks, or 1s 6d, in 1900, while the tax on beer in casks was about 175 per cent, and railway rates in Russia were four or five times higher for imported beers than for Russian ones. The result was that the retail price of Le Coq Stout or Ale was 2s 6d a quart – and millions of fake bottles of Le Coq beer, produced by “several” different brewers, were on sale.
Le Coq’s answer was to buy for £91,000 the Tivoli lager brewery in Dorpat, the town now known as Tartu, in modern Estonia, then part of the Russian empire. In its prospectus in 1912, Le Coq said the water at the Tivoli brewery “is, for all practical purposes, identical with the water of the London Brewery which has hitherto supplied Messers A. Le Coq and Co,” and it would thus be able, once the brewery plant had been extended, to supply “a first-class Stout at a price within the reach of the general Russian public.”
Unfortunately for British investors in A. Le Coq, two years after the start of attempts to brew within the borders of the Russian empire, the First World War erupted, with Russia eventually banning alcohol as part of the war effort. This was followed by the convulsions of the Russian Revolution, which saw Estonia gain its independence, but meant the Tartu brewery was cut off from its intended market.
Barclay’s is generally reckoned to be the brewery that supplied A. Le Coq with its stout: is it a coincidence that the brewery in Southwark began selling a beer in Britain under the name “Russian Stout” in 1921 or 1922, when it must have become clear there wouldn’t be a market in Russia again for such a British-brewed beer for an exceedingly long time? Ron Pattinson’s researches show this beer in 1921 was still known internally as “IBS”, “Imperial Brown Stout”, though it was marketed as “Russian Stout”, and the labels, from 1931 at least, said “Russian Imperial Stout”. In 1970 the name on the labels was tweaked to say “Imperial Russian Stout”, and it is this form of the name that influenced the many subsequent revivals of super-strong stouts.
So, then: “Imperial porter” came before “imperial stout”; there’s no conclusive evidence that the “imperial” bit definitely came from any connection with the Russian imperial court (although I think it’s reasonable to assume it probably did); and “Imperial” has been used with brews other than stout for more than 180 years to mean “biggest we do” – meaning nobody can complain about “Imperial Pale Ale” and the like.