Imperial marches on...
PUBLISHED: 14:08 09 September 2015 | UPDATED: 14:08 09 September 2015
The phone rang and a voice said: “Are you making scurrilous remarks about my beer?” It was Miles Jenner, head of production at Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, East Sussex, and he was joking.
I had called earlier while he was on brewing duties and left a message asking him to comment on a rumour that he was stopping production of his Imperial Extra Double Stout.
The rumour proved to be nonsense. The previous week in mid-August the beer had picked up two prestigious awards: Champion Bottled Beer from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and a gold medal in the World Beer Awards. Only a chump would axe a beer with that prestige and Miles Jenner, who comes from an old brewing family, is no chump.
Harvey’s is a beer with a bit of history on its side. It stands on the banks of the River Ouse and dates from 1784 the brewery. The brewery was substantially rebuilt in Victorian times and is packed with beautifully maintained wood and metal brewing vessels.
Miles Jenner and his team produce a raft of fine beers, including – for my money – one of the best beers in the country, Sussex Best Bitter, which can be supped in its London pub, the Royal Oak in Tabard Street, Borough, a few minutes from London Bridge Station.
But Harvey’s most fascinating beer is undoubtedly its Imperial Extra Double Stout, a beer with history in spades and even a St Albans connection. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when London porters and stouts were the vogue beers of the time, several London breweries exported strong versions of the dark beers to the Baltic States and Imperial Russia.
The major producer of export stout was Thrale’s Brewery in Southwark, founded by a member of the family from Sandridge and St Albans who farmed and then ran the famous tea rooms in French Row as well as Waterend Barn.
In the 19th century, the brewery became Barclay Perkins – the Barclay side came from the banking family – and it established itself as the biggest brewery in London. In the 20th century it merged with its near neighbour, Courage, at London Bridge and continued to brew Imperial Stout until the brewery closed.
The beer is called “imperial” as a result of the Southwark brewery receiving a royal warrant from the Russian court in St Petersburg when a consignment of the beer was sent to soldiers wounded during the Crimean War.
In 1974, divers in the Baltic Sea found the wreck of a ship that had foundered in 1869. The ship contained a consignment of stout, bearing the enigmatic name A Le Coq. Research showed that this was a Belgian called Albert Le Coq who exported imperial stout to Russia. As a result of heavy tariffs imposed on imports by the Russian government early in the 20th century, Le Coq built a brewery in Tartu, now in modern Estonia, to supply the region direct.
But following the Russian Revolution in 1917, the brewery was nationalised and produced only lager beer. In 1988, Miles Jenner negotiated with descendants of Albert Le Coq and won the right to brew the beer once more. The Tartu brewery, still in operation, was happy to hand over the recipe.
The beer is 9% and is brewed with pale, amber, brown and black malts and hopped with England’s two most traditional varieties, Fuggles and Goldings. The beer is conditioned in the brewery for an entire year to enjoy a long, slow secondary fermentation. As well as conventional brewer’s yeast, a wild yeast known as Brettanomyces – which means “British fungus” – and is present in Harvey’s brewery, is used to give a lactic tang to the beer.
The beer is smoky and vinous on aroma and palate, with powerful hints of liquorice, leather and tart fruit. Spicy hops build in the mouth and finish, with the dark malts giving a delicious bitter chocolate and espresso coffee note.
The reason why the rumour spread that Harveys was axing the beer was the result of a temporary problem in the brewery: the beer creates so much natural “condition” during its secondary fermentation that some bottles were gushing when filled. Miles Jenner and his team tackled the problem in short order and now this superb and historic beer can be enjoyed again.
Go to www.harveys.org.uk/shop