Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Imperial measures

I'd planned relating my Saturday visit to the Blind Tiger to you today. Then something I read on the bus got me thinking.

I picked up a copy of Ale Street News when in the Defiant brewery with Lew Bryson. It has an excellent article by him about Imperial beers. This is the sentence that set the gears in motion: " RIS [Russian Imperial Stout] was big and strong because it had to survive the sea journey to St, Petersburg".

Before I start, my thanks to Lew for prodding me in the direction of a new thought. Yet one more thing I'd accepted without properly considering.

I'm sure that I've said similar myself. "Russian Stout had to be strong to survive". But is it true? Did it have to be that strong? The journey to St. Petersburg is relatively short - compared to North America or India, which were also important export markets.

A variety of beers were exported from Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Stout was one. All the London brewers' logs I've seen include export beers. There are Export Stouts, but also Export Porters.

The Export BSt (Brown Stout) of the Griffin brewery was a fairly modest 1071 in 1838. It wasn't even their strongest stout DBSt (Double Brown Stout, I guess) was 1084. By 1867, they had two export Stouts, Crs Exp at 1061 and SSS Exp at 1094.

Over at Chiswell Street, Whitbread had four Stouts in 1844:

S Exp 1076,
S 1078,
SS 1089,
SSS 1100

The export Stout was the weakest of the bunch.

Truman's, in 1857, had Export Keeping [Porter] at a puny 1056. They had loads of stronger Stouts. I'm not going to bore you by going through them all. Even I'm starting to fall asleep. So many gravities.

Things were different at Barclay Perkins. In 1856, they had two export Stouts: Export Brown Stout at 1093 and IBSt (Russian Stout) at 1107. Both pretty powerful beers, though the domestic Brown Stout had the same gravity as the export version. (By 1910 the gravity of Export Brown Stout had fallen to 1076.)

There were export beers at the usual gravities. 1056 to 1100. Why was Russian Stout so strong, then? Because it was for the Russian flipping court. They always got top of the range. 1100. That was the magic number. Whether it was Edinburgh Ale, Strong Burton Ale or Stout. The very best had gravities over 1100.

Alcohol wasn't brewers' main defence against infection. They relied more on a combination of high attenuation and heavy hopping. What they considered a "true" secondary fermentation, was a long, slow process where brettanomyces (though they didn't know that's what it was at the time) chewed its way through anything fermentable.

Burton brewers, I'm pretty sure, achieved high attentation without the aid of brettanomyces. But don't quote me on that. I've not seen any positive evidence. The German bloke who wrote the book about top fermenting beers. What was his name? It's one of the books that's in a bag, due to our kitchen rennovation. I'll remember it in a minute. He was gobsmacked at the keeping qualities of English Pale Ale. I saw an advert recently from the 19th century where they guaranteed that their Pale Ales would last six months.

Thanks again, Lew. You made me consider the true nature of Russian Stout. What was it? Luxury beer.

Apologies for the low laugh count today. It's hard to drag much humour out of this stuff. Tomorrow I'll get back to grumbling about the young and giving American beers a hard time. I might throw in something about the Chelsea Hotel. (None of my American colleagues, including the ones born and raised in New York, had heard of it.) I made pages of notes. There will be weeks of suffering as I describe pies and show you photos of every beer I drank.


The Beer Nut said...

Sounds like my kind of blogging.

Note to self: include more pies.

Alan said...

I think I decided that a beer and pie festival must be the best thing in the world and then I found reference to one in East Yorkshire.

jeff said...

The hotel is actually quite (in)famous.


Ron Pattinson said...

There can never be too many pies in the world.

Jeff, that's why I was amazed no-one had heard of it. I had. Why do you think I stayed there?

Anonymous said...

The original Burton ale, of the kind exported to Russia and the Baltic in the 18th century, was sweet and sticky, according to reports, and even the version that became popular in the 19th century in the British market was sweeter than pale ale, so I don't think they attenuated them too far out. But they were still pretty powerfully alcoholic: tests on original Arctic Ales from Allsopps in Burton, which were similar in OG and style to the ales sent to the Baltic, showed them to be up over 10 per cent ABV. I'm not aware of any commentary mentioning Brett character in Burton Ales, but my impression (I could well be wrong) is that this was more often found in vatted beers, and I don't think the Burton brewers went in for vat-ageing. (But don't take me as a reliable source on that ...)

As far as strength, both of Burton ales exported to Russia and Imperial Stouts, goes, I'm sure you're right, Ron - nothing to do with surviving the journey, all to do with the customers' desire for something headbangingly powerful.

Ron Pattinson said...

I was thinking more of Burton Pale Ale, which was usually very highly-attenuated. Burton Strong Ale is another matter.

I believe that Burton Pale Ale was aged in the trade cask, i.e. the vessel in which it was shipped to the customer. But I'm not 100% sure on that. There's something in a brewery history I have of Bass about stacking the full barrels in the brewery yard. I would dig it out, but it's one of the books I have bagged up.

My guess would be that the Strong Burton Ales would have been vatted. Was Bass No.1?