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.

25 thoughts on “Fuller’s Imperial Stout – the most misunderstood beer of the past 12 months?

  1. That’s interesting, but it should be excellent fairly new too, IMO. How is the hopping on this one I wonder. If a similar beer was 8-9 lbs hops per barrel in the 1800’s and this one is 1 lb, say, maybe that would explain the lassitude of reaction. Of course I don’t know how much hops were used.


    1. Our particular complaint was that it was £7 for 500ml of 10.7% beer that gave us no more pleasure than many c.5% dark beers (e.g. Fuller’s own London Porter) available at a third of the price. (DISCLAIMER: haven’t checked prices or done sums so please don’t tell me off if FLP is actually only half the price.) We liked FIP, but it wasn’t anything like the instant classic we were expecting.

      It didn’t help that, at around the same time, people were buying Courage Russian Imperial in Tesco for a couple of quid a bottle.

      But, fanpeople that we are, we bought a case too, and have quite a few bottles left. Might have one tonight, in fact.

      1. A couple of quid… locally the Courage Russian Stout went for £1.00 / bottle. I stocked the cupboard. I will buy a couple of bottles of the Imperial Stout & put it away for the autumn. It’s worth a try.

    2. Well, seven quid is approximately four quid more than I’ve ever paid for a 500 ml bottle of beer, so I think a certain amount of reluctance is understandable. Secondly, I didn’t ask for 500 mls of a beer this strong & would have been perfectly happy with a 330 ml bottle or even an old-style ‘nip’, which would presumably have made the price a bit less ouchy. Thirdly, you can’t actually pay £7 for this; you either pay £7.95 for delivery (making the crate price £7.50 per bottle & the single-bottle price £14.95) or you rock up at the brewery shop like Ed & pay £8.50.

      1. You make a great point on bottle size. I always prefer a 33cl or a ‘nip’ when it comes to imperials or barley wines. They’re much more civilised! I must also say that my past experience of many imperial stouts is that they really are worth the wait if you can age them a year or two, especially the 9 or 10% + ones. My aged Driftwood Singularity Imperial Stout comparison evening of new vs aged showed the two year old bottle beating the recent vintage hands down! I have a barrel aged North Coast Old Rasputin that I’ve kept for 5 years, I will blog about that when it gets opened! Flavour, complexity, integration and balance are the rewards for the patient drinker!

  2. Ray or Martyn, pour a couple of ounces (max) from any American-style IPA in a bottle of this. This will emulate many mid-1800’s strong porters since American hops were used as you know in a supporting role, often When just a little is used the overall effect ifs superb. A little goes a long way, perhaps start with an ounce.


  3. I’m torn. If I was going to buy this, I’d want to buy a case, but £78 for twelve bottles is a lot. (Not as much as £22 for two or £15 for one, of course.) And why haven’t they used a smaller bottle for such a strong beer? OTOH, the Past Masters Double Stout was one of the best bottled beers I’ve ever tasted, never mind bottled stouts, so I don’t doubt it’s good.

  4. Interesting to see the price response here. It makes me think that either you have yet to experience the joys of wine-priced specialty beers, or we Americans are chumps and rubes. Either way, £7 would induce no sticker shock for an American. We’ve also gotten pretty used to the concept of aging our stouts, as well. I wonder if this post will look quaint to readers in another five years?

  5. It does speak a bit to the cult of “furniture polish fresh overly hopped bombs” or the “cult of the brewers palate.” Ready to drink beer doesn’t need to be like ready to drink wine but it certainly isn’t superior. Drinking Fuller’s Vintage under 5 years old is a waste.

  6. I thought the real story here was a rather revolutionary addition of rose buds to the recipe. I enjoyed it and suspect it will age magnificently. As for price it looks like the UK is finally catching up to what we pay for beer.

    1. “As for price it looks like the UK is finally catching up to what we pay for beer.”
      You’re making it sound like that’s a good thing……….

        1. I think it’s actually that *your* beer is very expensive, following very deliberate campaigns by some craft breweries in the US to jack prices up.
          Beer should be affordable, it’s not expensive to produce. The snobbery and elitism that underlies beer being priced like fine wine is contrary to traditional beer culture, in Europe at least.
          But, hey – it’s your money…….

  7. Hmmm, it’s £7.75 on the notoriously inaccurate price list of my local specialist beer seller that’s £1 more than they’re asking for 2013 Vintage ale. This makes the £4 the dodgy local offie that specialises in ‘chronologically challenged’ beer is asking for the 2010 Vintage look pretty good, though I’d wonder where and how it’s been stored. I wonder if the bottle of Thomas Hardy I bought in ’86 is actually drinkable?

  8. Having had a fresh one a few months ago, and having thought it was quite nice, but perhaps in need of a little age, this article piqued my curiosity.

    And so four bottles arrived today. I’m tasting one now and it’s a greatly improved beer for sure. Looking forward to seeing how the others develop, perhaps six months apart.

    1. 13 months on from that and it’s still going strong. Full and smooth, and all the flavours are so subtle. The rose in the background is almost savoury. It’s really delicious. I’m glad I still have one left.

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