Russian Imperial Stout in Truman’s America

A Super Stout

There was a plan to send Barclay Perkin’s Russian Imperial Stout over to America in 1950, so much did Yank soldiers dig it during the war (?).

Even in the nascent motivational research days, the exporter was smart enough to relabel it – this is 1950 – as Imperial Extra Stout. See details in this 1950 issue of the Buffalo Evening News:


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 imported to Victoria, Canada, at least, before WW I, as we see in this issue of the Daily Colonist in 1909, along with other stouts from Barclay Perkins.

(Both links are via the Fulton Historical Newspaper resource).

After commencement of the Great War, I believe the predecessor of Courage Imperial Russian Stout, as the brewery’s strongest stout was finally named, did not reappear in North America until the 1970s, unless in fact some did arrive in 1950, as the Buffalo story states.

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

Weiner’s book was written without knowledge of Michael Jackson’s landmark The World Guide to Beer published in the same year. Jackson’s book lyricised and made Imperial stout a permanent part of the craft pantheon.

According to this notation from Barnes and Noble, Weiner’s text was published on January 1, 1977. Hence the 1977 year is nominal and the book had been readied for print before (should there be any doubt whether he knew about Michael Jackson, that is. In any case, Weiner’s book contains no internal evidence of influence from the Englishman).

Weiner also stated of the Imperial stout that it was “Perhaps the most unusual commercially produced beer … [and] …is also among the strongest in the world”. He included a lengthy, admiring account of its history and production by the English wine writer Cyril Ray, reprinted from Queen magazine (1960s era). Ray writes about the beer in a way that likens the best “vintages” to fine burgundy.

The import of Lacon’s audit ale to New York in 1937, as I discussed recently, shows no less that even in Depression America a rich, expensive beer was available representing the top end of British brewing.

In sum, for those who knew where to look fine imported beer could be had. Certainly by the 1970s many categories familiar today such as strong ale, Imperial stout, pale ale, Belgian Trappist ale, Belgian saison, and many German types of course were available, even the tart Berliner Weisse, as 1970s American beer books attest.

But for the Korean War, one assumes, English Russian stout could have been a hit in 1950s connoisseur circles Stateside. After all, it wasn’t much earlier that Americans knew what top-end stout was. Ballantine Brewery in New Jersey made a rich brown stout in the 1930s, as did other breweries in the northeast.

Maybe Barclay Perkins wanted to capitalize on this old taste although it couldn’t have had much to sell given the small quantities made at the Anchor Brewery.

What does seem clear is the thinking of some major British and Irish breweries that they could sell stout in early post-war America. Famously, Guinness tried with its satellite brewery in Long Island (closed 1954), a matter I also covered earlier. It was all for nought, America didn’t want to know – then.

But I repeat, the pre-craft era was not a desert. There has always been a beer culture. There has always been fine beer. Some was still made in America itself such as Ballantine India Pale Ale, all-malt draught Michelob, the Prior Light and Dark beers, and Anchor Steam Beer.

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

Note re image: image above was sourced from the Tavern Trove LLC label collection, hereAll intellectual property in the image belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Label used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Leave a Comment