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, said a news report, did Yank soldiers admire it during the war (?)

Even in the early days of motivational research, but bearing in mind also the Cold War, the brewery was clever enough to relabel the beer “Imperial Extra Stout”. Further details are set out in this 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 the even more distant Victoria, British Columbia, even before WW I. See e.g. the advertisement in this issue of the Daily Colonist in 1909, which also mentions other stouts of Barclay Perkins.

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 as the Buffalo news item suggests.

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

Weiner wrote the book without knowledge, surely, of Michael Jackson’s landmark The World Guide to Beer, published in the same year. The book shows no internal evidence of influence from the Englishman, Jackson.

According to this notation from Barnes and Noble, Weiner’s book was published January 1, 1977. Hence, the 1977 is nominal. The book was readied for print earlier, whilst Jackson’s book came out mid-1977.

As beer historians well know, Jackson’s book lyricised Imperial stout. This made it a permanent part of the craft brewing pantheon to come.

We can conclude there was budding American interest in this historic beer type before Jackson dominated the beer scene, which began with his early books here.*

Weiner also wrote 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 from English wine writer Cyril Ray, published in Queen magazine (1960s-era). Ray wrote about the beer in a way that likened it to fine Burgundy, using literary flourishes to emphasize his point.

The sale of (the English) Lacon’s audit ale in New York in 1937, as I discussed recently, showed similar sophisticated interest even in the early days of consumer beer awareness, namely that rich, expressive beer could be had. In these cases, it was 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. Strong ale, Imperial stout, pale ale, Belgian Trappist, Belgian saison, and many top German types were represented. Even tart Berliner Weisse, a forerunner of today’s sour styles, could be found, at least in major cities such as New York.

Had the Korean War not intervened British Russian stout might have been the toast of 1950s beer connoisseurs. After all, it wasn’t much earlier that Americans knew what top-end stout was. Ballantine Brewery in New Jersey revived from pre-Prohibition days a rich brown stout in the 1930s. Other breweries in the Northeast did similar.

Barclay Perkins likely wished to capitalize on this inherited tradition, narrowed as it was, although it couldn’t have had much to export given the small quantities made at Anchor Brewery by this period.

What does seem clear is that a few British and Irish breweries after WW II considered 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 discussed earlier. There was a brief fashion for oyster stout in California of all places, also as I reviewed.

It was all for nought, America didn’t want to know, then. But it is useful to recall the history: 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 the originally all-malt draught Michelob, or Prior Light and Dark beers from the Keystone State. And there was Anchor Steam Beer, which formed a bridge finally to the craft beer era.

Note: See this post added on 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, invoking funeral music and Wagner to suggest its heavy, musky character. We wrote of this, here. It is perhaps the first North American critical commentary on Imperial Stout, now a mantra of the craft beer movement.