WHERE WOULD lovers of the world’s strongest, darkest beers be without a thin, pale German teenager named Sophia Augusta Frederica?
One of the great chapters of brewing history might not exist. There’d be no stouts named Old Rasputin or The Czar or Ivan the Terrible.
On the upside, the tiresome debate over whether to call it “double” or “imperial” IPA would never have started.
Indeed, no fewer than a third of BeerAdvocate.com’s top 100 beers would be classified as something pedestrian (Estonian Extra Porter, maybe?) if sickly, 16-year-old Sophia hadn’t been dragged off to St. Petersburg in 1745 by her throne-chasing mother to marry her second cousin and become, as your 10th-grade history teacher surely taught you, Catherine II, the Empress of all the Russias.
Catherine the Great (according to the oft-repeated legend) had a passion for the brownest, strongest porter from London’s great Anchor brewery. It was this ale that would eventually evolve into possibly the grandest of all beer styles, the darling of extreme beer aficionados, the prototype for some of the world’s most treasured brands: Russian Imperial Stout.
There’s no definitive source on how the empress discovered the dark ale. Perhaps it was during a visit to England, or maybe as she enjoyed its restorative powers during a spell with pneumonia. I have another theory:
The monarch’s chamberlain, or chief of staff, was a brilliant Russian count named Andrei Shuvalov.
It was Shuvalov who likely wrote most of Catherine’s letters, and it was Shuvalov who spread many of those nasty rumors about her notorious sexual peccadilloes (you’ve heard the one about the horse). The count was also a good friend of the famous British diarist James Boswell, the friend and biographer of one Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Johnson was close friends with the owner of the Anchor Brewery, a member of Parliament named Henry Thrale; in fact, Johnson lived on and off in a room at the brewery along the bank of the Thames at Southwark. At the time, Anchor was well-known for its exceptionally strong version of porter, which had been exported to the Balkans.
It’s not a hard stretch to imagine that Catherine the Great learned of this beer from her chamberlain, who might have been introduced to it by Boswell. In any case, we do know that the empress’ royal court ordered enough shipments of the strong porter that it would become known as Imperial Brown Stout. Legend says it was brewed extra strong to prevent it from freezing during its voyage through the Baltic Sea.
When Thrale died in 1781, it was Johnson who, as estate executioner, uttered one the beer world’s most enduring quotes: “We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” His prediction came true as the new owners, John Perkins and David Barclay, would turn Anchor into the largest brewery in the world before it was acquired by John Courage.
It is the version of Russian Imperial Stout brewed by Courage that old-timers still talk about.
Roasty, aromatic, almost fruity and strong (10 percent alcohol by volume), this stout surely warmed more than a few Russian souls over the centuries.
The stout was brewed into the 1990s, then disappeared after Courage’s brands were sold.
The good news, though, is that it was resurrected late last year by its new owner, Britain’s Wells & Young. This is an iconic beer, worthy of Catherine’s royal court, and surely worthy of your finest snifter.
Sip it now or cellar the bottle; the brewery suggests it’ll mature for as many as 13 years.