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Classic Beer of the Month October 2013: Wells & Young's Courage Imperial Russian Stout

Wells & Young's Courage Imperial Russian Stout, 10%

When it comes to heritage, few beers can compete with Courage Imperial Russian Stout.

Courage Imperial Russian StoutThis is a beer that dates back more than 200 years, a rich, potent, dark liquor that famously warmed the hearts of the Russian people. It began life at Thrales brewery in Southwark, in the 18th-century heyday of porter and stout, and was taken to new heights of prestige by Barclay Perkins when it acquired the business in 1781.

Rolled aboard ships, the beer – ABV 10%+ – made the chilly, choppy journey across the Baltic Sea where it was said to have been a firm favourite with Empress Catherine the Great and a great many other Russians, who clearly liked a beer with enough clout to keep out their cruel winters.

When Barclay Perkins merged with Courage in the 1950s, IRS remained in production, this time at the Anchor Brewery, close to Tower Bridge. At the time of the founding of CAMRA in 1971, it was noted as one of the five bottle-conditioned beers still in regular production in the UK.

Then the Anchor Brewery closed in the early 1980s and IRS continued its already steady decline. Batches emerged every couple of years or so until the final brew was released in 1993 from the John Smith's brewery in Tadcaster. When Courage declared the beer dead, it seemed like we'd seen the last of this historic brew.

Rights Acquired

But never say never in the world of brewing. In 2007, Wells & Young's, seeking to broaden its portfolio, acquired the rights to brew and market Courage brands from latter-day owner Heineken. The emphasis, at first, was on reviving Courage Best and Directors but, in 2011, attention turned to IRS.

Brewed, like the other Courage brands at Bedford, the beer was recreated using pale, chocolate and amber malts, with Hersbrucker and Styrian Goldings hops added in the copper. It was initially in short supply in Britain, with most sales earmarked for the USA.

The lucky few of us who enjoyed sample bottles were seriously impressed. It was no longer bottle conditioned but it was still a very fine beer.

I recognised hints of chocolate and coffee and suggestions of red berries in the winey aroma. The taste was silky smooth, a warming, bittersweet blend of coffee and liquorice that finished dry and bitter, with notes of tropical fruit contrasting with pronounced roasted grain flavours.

In 2012, the beer returned, this time with grateful British customers also treated to supplies.

With a draught version produced for the Great British Beer Festival in 2013, and more bottles on the way, it seems that one of Britain's great historic drinks has retaken its rightful place in our ever expanding catalogue of beers.

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