Russian Imperial Stout in Truman’s America?

A Super Stout

There was a plan, in distant 1950, to ship Barclay Perkin’s Russian Imperial Stout to America, so much, held a contemporary news story, did Yank soldiers admire it during the war (?).

Even in the early days of motivational research the brewery was clever enough to relabel the beer – this is 1950 – “Imperial Extra Stout”. Further details can be gleaned from a 1950 story in the Buffalo Evening News. It reads in part:

RUSSIAN STOUT NAMED IMPERIAL FOR U. S. MARKET

Special to The Buffalo Evening News and Chicago Daily News

LONDON, April 26. — One of the popular beers in England is “Russian stout,” so-called ever since it was first brewed in 1781 for export to Russia.

In old days Russia’s aristocracy demanded a super stout and a British brewery rose to the occasion, naming the brew after its destination. From 1781 until World War I, thousands of barrels of Russian stout were shipped over every year.

But times have changed. Russia is now behind an Iron Curtain, which even Russian stout is not able to penetrate. There’s a new potential market in America, however, which the brewers hope to open up….

Barclay’s Russian Stout had been exported to even further Victoria, British Columbia even before WW I. See for example the advertisement in this issue of the Daily Colonist in 1909, which also mentions other stouts of Barclay Perkins. (Both links are via the Fulton Historical Newspaper resource).

After the start of WW I, it seems Courage Imperial Russian Stout, as the Russian Stout came to be called by 1970, did not reappear on our shores until the mid-1970s, unless that is some arrived during the Korean War period as the Buffalo news item suggests.

American beer writer Michael Weiner gave the beer high praise in his 1977 The Taster’s Guide to Beer: “smooth, rich, velvety. Sweet, yet carries the bitter tang of hops”.

Weiner’s book was written without knowledge surely of Michael Jackson’s landmark The World Guide to Beer published in the same year. As beer historians well know, Jackson’s book lyricised Imperial stout and made it a permanent part of the craft brewing pantheon to come. According to this notation by Barnes and Noble, Weiner’s book was published on January 1, 1977. Hence, the 1977 is nominal and the book was readied for print earlier, whilst Jackson’s book came out mid-1977.

In any case, Weiner’s book contains no internal evidence of influence from Englishman Jackson. This shows us there was budding American critical interest in this historic beer type before Jackson’s influence swept the beer scene, which started with the first appearance of his books here.*

Weiner also stated that Imperial stout was “Perhaps the most unusual commercially produced beer … [and] …is also among the strongest in the world”. He reprinted a lengthy, admiring account by the English wine writer Cyril Ray from Queen magazine (1960s-era). Ray wrote about the beer in a way that likened its best “vintages” to fine Burgundy, using literary flourishes along the way.

The sale of (English) Lacon’s audit ale in New York in 1937, as I showed recently, showed no less that even in the early days of consumer beer awareness a rich, expressive beer could be had from the top end of British brewing.

Certainly by the 1970s, for those who knew where to look, fine imported beer was available, in many categories familiar today. These included strong ale, Imperial stout, pale ale, Belgian Trappist, Belgian saison, and many German types. Even tart Berliner Weisse, a forerunner of today’s sour styles, could be found, at least in some major cities such as New York.

Had the Korean War not intervened, English Russian stout might have been the toast of 1950s connoisseur circles. After all, it wasn’t much earlier that Americans knew what a top-end stout was. Ballantine Brewery in New Jersey had revived a rich brown stout in the 1930s, as did other breweries in the Northeast.

Barclay Perkins likely wanted to capitalize on this inherited old tradition, although it couldn’t have had much to export given the small quantities made at Anchor Brewery in London.

What does seem clear is the thinking of a few major British and Irish breweries after WW II that they could sell prime stout in America. Famously, Guinness tried via its satellite brewery in Long Island, NY (closed in 1954), a matter I also covered earlier. There was a brief fashion, too, as I also showed, for oyster stout in California of all places. It was all for nought, America didn’t want to know, then.

But it is useful to recall: the pre-craft beer era was not a desert. There has always been fine beer in North America, albeit inconsistently and not always easy to find. Some was made in America itself such as Ballantine India Pale Ale, or all-malt draught Michelob, or the Prior Light and Dark beers from the Keystone State. And there was Anchor Steam Beer, which formed a bridge finally to the craft beer revolution.

Note: See this post added March 4, 2019 for a sequel.

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*[Added Dec. 30, 2019: In fact The Great Canadian Beer Book, published in 1975 in Toronto, contained an admiring, literary-style notice of Courage Imperial Russian Stout as well, invoking images of funeral music and Wagner to explain its heavy, musky character. We wrote of this coverage here. This is perhaps the first North American critical commentary on the style of the modern, or perhaps any, type].

 

 

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