Russian Stout and 1975 Canada

First of its Kind

The Great Canadian Beer Book, edited by Gerald Donaldson and Gerald Lampert, was published in 1975 by McLelland and Stewart. It’s today part of Random House-Bertlesmann. Lampert is long-deceased, while Donaldson, still active, has carved a notable career in auto racing journalism and biography.

Despite its playful “scrapbook” design, popular in the 1970s, and insouciant tone the book is full of information: statistical, brewing-technical, historical, culinary, literary, and more. Levity is not absent, to be sure. The first chapter, “How’s This for Openers”, shows a bunch of bottle openers in a pile. It’s funny!

The book in part comprises short pieces by people of diverse backgrounds. There is Ted Dunal, who ran Henninger Brewery (Ontario) in the 1970s. There are poets, journalists, ad executives, novelists, and professors. Other chapters were prepared evidently by the editors.

 

 

The Great Canadian Beer Book may be Canada’s first consumer book on beer. For that reason alone it deserves to be remembered, but has value beyond that. Recently I discussed its essay by the late Marian Engel, the award-winning, Toronto-based novelist.

Two pages detail important history of Labatt Brewery. There are photos showing a “replica of the original Labatt brewhouse built in 1828 in London, Ontario”. A bearded, long-haired man is shown handling an oak barrel. For all the world it could be a scene at modern craft brewery.

Home Made, Home Brewed

There is a light-hearted but informative chapter on home brewing by Cromwell Kent, who writes:

… there is a barm in Toronto to soothe the weary soul. It is said to be descended from a famous Dublin brewery. Sometimes our barm dies on us, because we go a long time between brews and maybe we forget to feed it, and then we have to contact one of the custodians of this noble strain. They are all good people, deserving of their charge.  Mostly they are artists and belong to what is nowadays called the Old Left. From the pictures on a person’s wall, a shrewd judge can tell if he is likely to have the barm.

Cromwell Kent was the pseudonym of U.K.-born (in Chatham) Francis Sparshott (1926-2015), a long-time professor of philosophy and classics at  the University of Toronto. This obituary from the Toronto Star gives a good overview of his career, including his interest in beer.

I wonder what he thought of the craft beer revival, well underway at his passing. In his fashion, he contributed to it, unquestionably.

He had definite views, and was particular on aging of beer. He felt from 12-18 months made all the difference. After that, he said, “who knows?”. Quite so.

An American Adumbrates Beer Here

The book has things to say about beer styles even though written when mass market beer was at a height of influence.

The second chapter, “My Love Affair With Beer”, was authored by James Lincoln Collier (“JLC”). JLC is a distinguished author and professional musician, known for his children’s books and other works, some co-written with his brother, Christopher Collier.

JLC, as it happens, is American. Born and raised in New York City he still resides there, at 92. It may sound odd that the opening essay of Canada’s first beer book was written by an American. It’s not, really. The cultures of both places in consumer matters (and not just that) is close enough to permit cross-commentary.

JLC had drunk beer from “Dublin to Moscow, from Rome to Oslo”. Evidently he had a cosmopolitan, gastronomic background, perhaps one not as easily found in Canada then. His multi-page article, a blend of history, brewing technics and personal reminiscence, has a nugget on that classic of modern craft beer, Imperial Russian Stout.

Strong London Stout

The first “literary” treatment of Imperial stout is, I think, a 1960s magazine essay by the English wine writer Cyril Ray: “Cyril Ray Cracks a Bottle of 1948 Russian Stout”. American beer writer Michael Weiner reprinted it in his 1977 The Taster’s Guide to Beer. Later that year, the Briton Michael Jackson wrote his great éloge to Russian Imperial stout in The World Guide to Beer, the most important beer study ever written.

Russian stout had been noticed earlier by commentators, say, the Briton Michael Hardman in the early 1970s. And earlier, a series of 1920s advertisements conveyed an “exotic” character, I mean Barclay Perkins’ ads showing Russian wolfhounds led by a greatcoated figure.

But Jackson, with a spur from Ray whom he may have read, capped it all with his lines and evocative illustrations in that landmark book.

Collier’s comments predate Jackson by a good two years, and make their own statement viewed with the benefit of 40 years passed. He wrote of the style: “… heavy, bitter and musky, with overtones of funeral trombones and Wagnerian heroes at the edge of tragedy”. And, “… its tragic grandeur makes it a truly majestic drink”.

Now that’s modern beer writing. Maybe jackson had read the lines before writing his summum on the style.

Reflect on this the next time you uncork your prize, and it is, bourbon barrel-aged Imperial stout.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Amazon listing linked in the text (see opening words). All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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