Russian Stout Gains Plaudits in 1975 Canada

A First-of-its-Kind

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

Despite its playful, “scrapbook” design popular in the 1970s, and insouciant tone, the book is full of information on every level: statistical, brewing-technical, historical, culinary, literary, and more. But levity is not absent, to be sure. The first chapter, entitled “How’s This for Openers”, is simply an image of beer openers lying halter-skelter in a pile. It’s funny!

The book comprises, in part, short pieces authored by people of diverse backgrounds: executives (e.g. Ted Dunal, who ran Henninger Brewery (Ontario) Ltd. in the 1970s, a craft forerunner), poets, journalists, admen, novelists, professors. Other chapters, uncredited, were prepared clearly by the editors.

In fact, The Great Canadian Beer Book may be Canada’s first consumer book on beer. For that reason alone it deserves attention, but contains much of value inherently. Earlier, I discussed its essay by the late Marian Engel, an award-winning, Toronto-based novelist.

Two pages of closely written script detail some history of Labatt’s Brewery, with photos showing a “replica of the original Labatt brewhouse built in 1828 in London, Ontario”.* (Is it still there?). A bearded, long-haired chap is shown handling an oak barrel that for all the world could be a scene at modern craft brewery.

Home Made, Home Brewed

There is a light-hearted but informative chapter on home brewing in which author Cromwell Kent 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 (Chatham, England) Francis Sparshott (1926-2015), a long-time scholar of philosophy and classics at Victoria College, University of Toronto. This obituary from the Toronto Star gives a compact overview of his career, extending to his interest in beer.

I wonder what he thought of the craft beer revival. In his way, he contributed to it, I now perceive.

I may return to Cromwell Kent’s essay, as he knew what he was doing. He was particular for example on aging of beer, he felt 12-18 months made all the difference. After that, as he irreverently but perhaps accurately put it, “who knows?”.

An American Adumbrates Beer for Canadians

The book also has things to say about beer styles, surprising as it may sound. Yes, it was written at the height of mass market uniformity of lager and ale in Canada but the book delves into beer as understood elsewhere, including Britain.

The second chapter, entitled “My Love Affair With Beer”, is authored by James Lincoln Collier (JLC). JLC is a distinguished author and professional musician, known for his children’s books and other short and long 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, but it’s not, really. If nothing else, I’ve sought to show, via my work on Canadian beer, whisky, and food, as well as the American ditto whose tendrils reached into Canada, that in many ways the traditions of both countries are one.

I think the editors chose Collier due to his international experience, he had drunk beer from “Dublin to Moscow, from Rome to Oslo”, and evidently had the kind of cosmopolitan, gastronomic background not easily found in Canada then. His multi-page piece, a blending of history, brewing technic and personal reminiscence, contains a nugget on that perennial of brewing craftology, Imperial Russian Stout.

Spinning Strong London Stout

The first modern literary appreciation of Imperial stout may be the 1960s magazine essay by an English wine writer, Cyril Ray, “Cyril Ray Cracks a Bottle of 1948 Russian Stout”. U.S. 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 The World Guide to Beer, the most important beer guide ever written.

Of course, Russian stout had been noticed earlier by various commentators, including, say, Michael Hardman in the early 1970s, and indeed since later Georgian times. But placing a literary spin on the topic – that extended finally to Imperial stout being viewed as a separate category of beer with its own history, when it started as simply an extra-strong black beer, is quite new, of the last 50 years.

Earlier, some advertisements conveyed an “exotic” character, a well-known, 1920s print ad of Barclay’s showing Russian wolfhounds led by a greatcoated figure is an example. And see my discussion of a plan in 1950 to export the stout to New York, where the backstory mentions a history involving the Russian court. These, with Ray’s essay, set the stage for the weaving of a beguiling tale that the upper crust of the European east were entranced by a silky black brew from London of exotic palate.

When offered in lyrical photo-essay form, as Michael Jackson did in 1977 using exotic (today) Victorian label and other images, a star was born.

Collier’s brief but impactful exposition predates that treatment by a good two years – presages it in its way – but whether Jackson had read that book before his beer-writing career started is an open question.

As an American, I doubt Collier had seen Cyril Ray’s essay, but having tasted “Courage-Barclay’s” “vintage beer … made only once every three years” he understood inherently, as a good beer man, what great beer was all about. He stated it was “heavy, bitter and musky, with overtones of funeral trombones and Wagnerian heroes at the edge of tragedy”. And movingly, that “its tragic grandeur makes it a truly majestic drink”.

There’s no Place Like Home

Collier still was capable of appreciating good old standard Canadian beer, considering it suitable with “summer foods like lobster, hamburgers, fried chicken and fish”. Well, its palate has evolved since then, Stateside too of course as JLC surely has noted with approval from his New York perch.

Reflect on that 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.


*The founder of the Labatt Brewery, John Kinder Labatt, did not arrive in Canada until 1833 but an item at pg. 65 states an innkeeper, George Balkwill, established a brewery near the Thames River in London in 1828 and Labatt’s Brewery “traces its origin to this pioneer enterprise”.





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