Cyril on Stout…

… and the Stirrup-Cup

Cyril Ray was an English wine specialist and writer, long-lived (1908-1991). A good bio at Wikipedia sets out his background. His name lives on, apart his writings, via his son Jonathan Ray, the long-time wine editor at The Spectator.

The image below of Ray père, from the biographical entry, evokes to my mind Patrick Macnee of the famed TV series The Avengers.



In 1967 Ray issued In a Glass Lightly which collected magazine pieces and other occasional writings on drink.* These mainly dealt with wine, but also other drinks. There is a chapter on beer in which some interesting remarks appear on pale ale, porter, and pubs.

The image below is from the book’s Amazon listing.



Cyril Ray and Imperial Stout

In today’s beer scene some are aware of Ray’s early, impactful appreciation of Russian Imperial Stout, now an established style in craft brewing. The piece was originally written for Queen magazine, apparently in the mid-1960s.

It was reprinted in Michael Weiner’s The Taster’s Guide to Beer (1978) which I bought over 40 years ago, more or less concurrently with Michael Jackson’s more famous The World Guide to Beer (1977).

Ton Pattinson reprinted the Queen article in a blogpost some years ago, and a useful service that was to beer studies.

Michael Jackson did a great deal to create the modern aura for Russian stout yet did not reference Ray’s remarks. Either they eluded him or he did not mention having encountered the piece.

Ray characterized the beer in romantic-historical terms, not dissimilar Jackson’s later, more lush treatment. One must credit Ray, and Weiner in some part, with the process of transforming what had been a rare unusual type of strong porter, but not more, into a stand-alone style with mystique and aura.

In a Glass Lightly incorporates the same Queen passages, so I won’t add further on that account.

Ray on Stout Per Se

Ray discusses other stout including Guinness. Bryan Guinness, aka Lord Moyne, was evidently a friend and confidant. An anecdote related has Bryan offering house guests a special drink, a “stirrup-cup”, on departing – Ray evidently had stayed with him at the estate outside Dublin.

He described the drink as:

Guinness Foreign [Extra Stout] and Guinness Porter, mixed and matured to [Bryan’s] own taste, and deliciously crisp yet full.

Guinness must have bottled a special blend for Bryan, then its Vice-Chairman. One wishes more was conveyed on the mixture, but the logic was impeccable as blending as been part of the porter story from early times.

Ray stated that stout accompanied well jugged hare, Guinness Extra Stout in particular. Whereas he liked Guinness Draught with bone marrow and toast. As between the stronger Guinness Foreign Extra, then sent to “tropical” countries, and potent Guinness Special Export Stout, then sent to Europe, he thought the latter richer, a burgundy to the claret of the other, as he put it.

Ray generally preferred (bottled) Extra Stout to Guinness Draught, stating he liked its “prickle” and it was “fresher”. By this time the Draught was filtered in England and likely pasteurized, vs. unfiltered, bottle-conditioned Guinness Extra Stout, so this makes sense looking back.

Ray, Pale Ale, Gold Triangle

Ray preferred naturally-conditioned, bottled ale in general to the filtered, pasteurized beer coming from the breweries in ever increasing quantity. He mentioned Bass Red Triangle and Worthington White Shield in this regard, but, and a sign of where the market was going, for use at his home even he bought the “keg” versions, Blue Triangle and Green Shield.

The bottled beer he had most regard for was the rare Bass Gold Triangle, on which he has much to say.** It was “admirably bitter, mellow, and rather strong”, sold in nips, or 2/3rds of a half-pint. He says it was perfect for a mid-morning or pre-luncheon drink, and by all rights should have been preferred by many to a gin-and-tonic, except for its price: two shillings a nip.

To be clear, this was too cheap, not too dear. He states he told Bass’ chairman to raise the price, so a higher echelon would buy it, but this did not occur. He states that later, when German Lowenbrau gained cachet in London, it could have been Bass Gold Triangle in its place. This puts a different spin on the usual story of lager’s unceasing, inevitable rise in the British Isles.

Ray as a Beer Critic

All this makes Ray sound like a true beer person, but really he wasn’t. Perhaps strategically, he states at the outset of the chapter that he really doesn’t know much about beer. He understood, and explained well, brewery- and pub-conditioned beer, say, but his heart seemed not really in it.

Perhaps he intended to assure his wine audience he remained on the grape side of the equation. He acknowledged that many in that constituency considered wine the socially superior drink. While he calls the attitude “snobbery”, I think by and large he shared the view.

For example, he states he gave his share of beer dinners but they seemed to make little impact on his guests. On one occasion he served Bass’s King’s Ale, brewed and bottled for the coronation of Edward VII, only to be told it tasted like “a tired old Madeira”.

Even Ray’s wife thought the beer reminiscent of “Parrish’s Chemical Food”. It is not beyond my research abilities to check what that was, or is, but I think I’ll refrain.

Image below is via this Worthpoint auction item.



It would take much independence of mind to stand against such attitudes, especially then, and I think in the end he too, raised two cheers for beer. The confirming point was his professed lack of interest in pubs. “Wet and smelly stand-up places” he called them, even likening the pub to a “public convenience”. Unfair, but there it is.

And so draught beer, really the star of the pub then and now, of the English brewing heritage, seemed to impress Ray only minimally. To the extent he embraced beer, it was the bottled form. This perhaps had its origin in class-based attitudes.***

It puts me in mind that flying officers in the prewar R.A.F. also preferred bottled beer to draught, as I recorded in Part I of my article on beer in British Malaya. During World War II Ray served as officer in a balloon squadron, so it all ties in, you see.

Note re images: images are sourced as identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*The edition I used, but it seems a version of the book was published earlier, in 1960.

**Ron Pattinson has a few words, see here. Note the strength he records.

***See further in Comments.









3 thoughts on “Cyril on Stout…”

  1. I vaguely remember the name from my younger days.

    Given his imagine as a stuffy upper-middle-class English gent, and the undoubted vein of snobbery in some of the comments you refer to, it’s perhaps surprising on reading his biography to discover that he was in fact a Socialist from a Jewish background.

    • I knew of the Jewish background but a socialist interest came as a surprise. I see now a glancing reference to it in the Wikipedia piece. Was there a full-scale biography written of him? If so I may track it down.

      Some of the great and the good – I am not saying he was of that class but seems to have shared some of its interests – were socialist of course, the Shavians and all that, the Webbs who travelled to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, etc.

      I think for the time, writing about wine mainly, taking all with all (including his later Observer and other pieces on barley wine and other beer) he handled the subject fairly well. It was more the aversion to pubs that discomfited me, as how can one really be in synch with the brewing heritage outside the public house context?

      Still, he is a notable early observer of the beer scene, if only occasional. And that article in Queen magazine, on Russian stout, stands out as premonitory, a harbinger certainly.


  2. I should add, back in 2015 the English beer writers Boak and Bailey wrote two blogposts on Cyril Ray and beer. They use different, and later sources than I did. See this post, which links to the previous one.

    Those wishing a more complete understanding of Ray’s approach to beer should read what B&B say together with my notes. While the tastings described gave Ray the chance to elaborate on his views, at bottom I don’t think anything covered in In a Glass Lightly changes.

    It all hangs together (imo) especially his decided tilt toward bottled beer.


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