The gong for best bottle-conditioned beer at the 2015 CAMRA Great British Beer Festival was the 16th major award for Harveys Imperial Extra Double Stout since it was first brewed in Lewes, East Sussex, in 1999. But the beer’s roots are much older than that. It goes back to a super-strong porter made at Barclay Perkins’ Anchor brewery in Southwark, on the banks of the River Thames.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Barclay’s brewery, earlier known as Thrale’s, was one of the biggest brewers of porter, the most popular beer among London’s working classes. It also brewed an extra-strong version, which was being exported abroad from at least the 1790s, especially to the Baltic, and was extremely popular at the Tsar’s court in St Petersburg, Russia.
The landscape painter Joseph Farington wrote in his diary on 20 August, 1796: “I drank some Porter Mr Lindoe had from Thrale’s Brewhouse. He said it was specially brewed for the Empress of Russia and would keep seven years.”
In 1818, almost 214,000 bottles of porter were exported to St Petersburg. Exportation was carried out by independent bottlers and shippers and, by the middle of the 19th century, the trade with Russia was dominated by the firm of A Le Coq & Co, run by Albert Johann Ludwig Coq. He is frequently today described as a Belgian but, in fact, his family were Prussian Huguenots, who had fled from religious persecution in their home in Lorraine, France in 1685. The Le Coqs became traders and wine merchants, and Albert came to London in 1830, initially to develop a trade in Britain for the family wine business, branching out only later into exporting beers.
Albert retired from the business in 1870, leaving it in the hands of a partner, Oscar Hyde Sillem, born in 1838. The Sillems were also German, from Hamburg. In 1881, the Le Coqs sold the London concern to Sillem. It flourished at first but, in the early 1890s, business began a rapid decline and in 1895, Oscar sent his 28-year-old son Herbert Oscar Sillem to St Petersburg to investigate. Herbert quickly found there were two big problems.
The first was the high tariffs imposed on imported beers, coupled with the high freight charges put on foreign beers by the Russian railways. The second was the enormous amount of fake A Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout on the market. Herbert uncovered “huge” warehouses in St Petersburg filled with counterfeit A Le Coq beer. However, when he reported this to the police, nothing happened.
On the move
The Sillems eventually decided that to protect their market they would have to move their headquarters to St Petersburg and start bottling in Russia. A warehouse was thus rented in St Petersburg, in 1906, where a bottling plant was installed. A Le Coq dropped its long-time supplier, Barclay Perkins, and the beer supplied for bottling in Russia came instead from another big London stout and porter brewer, Reid & Co.
The Sillems also began looking for a brewery inside Russia where they could brew their own Imperial Extra Double Stout. Some had doubts that stout could be brewed in Russia successfully. But Oswald Pearce Serocold, a director at Reid’s, promised “counsel and help” in getting a brewery in Russia brewing stout.
Eventually, in 1911, after a long search, the A Le Coq directors picked the Tivoli lager brewery in Dorpat, Livonia, the town now known as Tartu, in modern-day Estonia.
Tests on water taken from boreholes at the brewery showed it was for “all practical purposes, identical with the water of the London brewery, which has hitherto supplied Messers A Le Coq and Co,” and it was acquired for £91,000. Oswald Serocold helped A Le Coq recruit an English brewer and a maltster to produce stout at the new plant in Dorpat and the first sample batch arrived in April 1913. Unfortunately for British investors in A Le Coq, 16 months later WW1 erupted.
Then came the Russian Revolution, which cut the brewery, now in an independent Estonia, off from its previous major market.
In 1921, the A Le Coq brewery reopened in what was now Tartu under the Sillems and, in 1926, it began production of imperial stout again. But by 1937, stout was just 0.4% of the brewery’s total production. Then WW2 came and, in 1940, the Red Army annexed Estonia. The brewery was nationalised, and eventually became one of the leading concerns in the USSR, though it no longer made stout.
Fast forward to 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Estonia declared its independence. In 1995, the Tartu brewery was privatised and, in 1997, it was bought by Olvi Oy, the last remaining large independent brewery in Finland, which renamed its entire Estonian operation A Le Coq Ltd in 2003.
Recreating the brew
Meanwhile, the beer writer Michael Jackson had mentioned A Le Coq’s Imperial Extra Double Stout in his World Guide to Beer, published in 1977. In 1998, an American importer decided to try to get an authentic version of the beer recreated.
The Tartu brewery agreed to put the A Le Coq name to the beer but it was to be brewed in England, with the Estonians insisting that it be made by a small, independent brewery with experience of making porter-style beers. The company chosen was Harvey & Son of Lewes in East Sussex: coincidentally, Harveys’ head brewer, Miles Jenner, came from a family that had actually brewed imperial stout at its own brewery in Southwark in the 19th century.
Jenner and his team set about trying to recreate a recipe for Imperial Extra Double Stout, leaning on the memories of brewers who had produced Barclay Perkins Russian Stout in the 1950s. The first brew was made in 1999 and, after nine months’ conditioning, it was bottled in corked bottles and released for sale in February 2000.
Drinkers raved over its complex mixture of flavours. But unknown to Harveys, a wild yeast called Debaromyces hansenii was lurking in the bottles and, after nine months, it began making itself known, producing carbon dioxide, which started pushing the corks out. Luckily, the Debaromyces added even more complexity of flavour to the finished beer. The final conditioning by wild yeast is, in fact, the last touch of authenticity: there is no doubt that 19th-century Russian stouts would have been part-fermented by wild yeasts as well.
Today, A Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout is brewed once a year (though two brewings are now planned for 2015). Harveys also now sells what Miles Jenner calls a “nouveau” version of the beer, bottled within six weeks of fermentation, and sold under the name Prince of Denmark.
“Originally, we produced it as a bit of fun for the Copenhagen Beer Festival,” Jenner says. “It was chilled, filtered and pasteurised but was surprisingly good and we kept it going because, invariably, people got tired of waiting for the new Imperial Extra Double Stout vintages while we ruminated as to whether they were ready or not!”
Meanwhile Imperial Extra Double Stout keeps on winning awards: a couple of weeks after picking up the Champion Bottle-Conditioned Beer title at Olympia, London, it was given the UK’s Best Imperial Stout title at the World Beer Awards.
There’s life in the old beer yet.