When Peter the Great opened Czarist Russia to the West in the early 18th century, dark ales called "Porter" were all the rage in England. Porters, named after the working class who devoured them, were relatively easy-drinking brews with a small percentage of highly roasted malt. The result was a dark brown, toffee-flavored libation fit for mass consumption. Arthur Guinness took the idea to Ireland, increased the dark, coffee-tinted profile and added “Extra Stout” to his label, thus creating another new beer style.
Peter the Great fell in love with stouts during his 1698 trip to England, and he requested that some be sent to the Imperial court in Russia. Much to the embarrassment of the English, the beer had spoiled somewhere along its tedious thousand-mile journey! Determined as always to save face, the Barclay brewery of London came to the rescue by rapidly increasing the amount of alcohol and hops for their second effort. The result was an inky black concoction with enough warmth and complexity to immediately become a sensation throughout Russia. The “Russian Imperial Stout” had been born and quickly became popular throughout European Russia.
Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) was very much a fan of Imperial Stout. One notable supplier was Thrale’s Anchor Brewery in the parish [district] of Southwark, a mile or two up river from John Courage Brewery’s site. In 1796 Thrale’s supplied Imperial Stout "that would keep seven years" to the Empress of Russia. The author of The History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Saviour, Southwark, said of Thrale’s beer at that time, "The reputation and enjoyment of Porter [Imperial Stout] is by no means confined to England. As proof of the truth of this assertion, this house exports annually very large quantities; so far extended are its commercial connections that Thrale’s Entire [a contemporary name for Imperial Stout] is well known, as a delicious beverage, from the frozen regions of Russia to the burning sands of Bengal and Sumatra. The Empress of All Russia is indeed so partial to Porter that she has ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking and that of her court." She also ordered some of her supply from The John Courage Brewery. The John Courage Brewery continued to brew its Imperial Stout, with the boast on its label that it was originally brewed by Imperial order of Catherine, up until the 1990s. While hugely popular through the 19th century, Porters had fallen away completely from consumer's tastes by the end of the 20th Century. The style may have disappeared altogether were it not for the newfound bravado and quirkiness of the emerging craft brewing scene in the U.S. Anxious to brew all things intense, extreme and obscure, many small batch American brewers began resurrecting and re-inventing the old Russian genre. Today’s versions are even bigger and bolder than the originals.
“The Czar” from Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado is an excellent example of the new American rendition. At nearly 12 percent alcohol, the Czar will warm the cockles of any Russian heart in the dead of winter. Enjoy with Stilton cheese, gourmet chocolates or a nice maduro cigar. Whatever you do, take your time and indulge like royalty.
-by Greg D. Willis, Professional Beer Guy, for the Alexander Palace Time Machine
For more information about The Czar Imperial Stout from Avery Brewing, please visit http://www.averybrewing.com/