Sunday, 12 February 2017

Saint Petersburg

I miss speciality Sundays. But, wait, what's this? I have an imperial stout from Thornbridge Brewery that I picked up from the local bottle shop just sitting around and begging to be drunk. And, you know, when you see one of these it's just rude not to buy and imbibe as soon as possible. So, I suppose I ought to mind my manners and turn straight to the tasting of Saint Petersburg, an imperial Russian stout that ought to bring all kinds of love and happiness into the room and my proceedings.

I do have a bit of a fondness for Imperial Russian Stouts, it would appear, and I am an historian of Russia generally, so I guess what I'm saying is, chto delat?

It smells divinely chocolatey and deep on the opening, even before I pour, and right away I know why it was that I wanted this brew. 300 years of misrule under a tsarist system sagging beneath the weight of its own inequalities and propped up by the kind of institutions that were rapidly being smothered from their medieval Feudal origins in the white heat of a tsarist inspired industrial revolution is an accurate enough depiction of the feeling following a week of feeling very over-worked set against a month of feeling very over-worked generally. It pours into the glass like the very energy of that politicised working class in Petrograd or the generally angry and wanting action peasantry rising up in unco-ordinated shows of rage from 1902 onwards in the Illumination. A big and frothy head forms, sticking around like Populist infiltrators in the Zemstva, slowly learning the needs of the peasants and transforming into the immensely powerful Social Revolutionary movement. Roasted chocolate lingers above the brew, with a thin but definite sweetness lurking beneath, like some romantic comedy played out against the backdrop of financial meltdown and failing infrastructure in 1916.

Then the taste. A tidal wave of coffee and chocolate, strangely sweet rather than the bitterness of dark chocolate, though there are vestiges of the milk chocolate of the UK style, a bit oily and thick, around the sides. Elements of caramel like the sparks of revolution, the whiff of civil disobedience, carried by the bubbles as the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison were carried by the crowds and melted into non-existence. Like Kabalov I fear that I must report that the taste means that I have rather lost control of my mouthparts and they are embracing this rather rich and deep velvet Russian Stout as though it were some long lost saviour. It's not quite the ice-cream creaminess and marshmallow softness of the Imperial Russian Stout from Founders that I tried in Leeds back in September (click here) but is definitely something that I am glad that I picked up. At 7.4% ABV this is no sessionable stout and there is no turning back now. Each sip fills the mouth, seizing control of key points like the Bolshevik sympathising Red Guard on the night of 25-26 October, here the Post Office falls with naught but a whisper and then, near the back of the throat on the cusp of the after-taste, the telegraph office slips under the influence of the men haranguing delegates in the All-Russian Congress of Soviets at the Smolny Institute. St Petersburg is falling, and falling hard, layers of luxury atop the carbonation, rich rubbing shoulders with the thick coffee blackness of the anger of the urban working class.

As yet, the countryside is silent, still reeling from the brutal suppression dressed as Pacification between 1906 and 1907. The Liberal movement, blinded by the failures and faux-democratic stirrings of the Duma recognise that the system is bankrupt and finished but find themselves unable to gauge the mood of the people, the mood of the vast swathes of peasantry bowed beneath the need to fight a Total War with all means necessary but ill-equipped socially to withstand the pressure that will break better prepared empires than Russia. No, multiple tastes reveal that St Petersburg will endure, the people a brave and hardy lot by choice rather than by design or some mystical racial quality, they see their chance to work together as one and to be something different, not yet seeing, as neither do they, the future authoritarian style proclamations of the educated men slowly viewing the world through ever more powerful paranoid lenses. It is an ale with a story, a bitter and sour edge running across the whole affair like the bitterness of the people in 1917 and 1921. A poignant and harrowing cry toward the end, when the victory that should have been so sweet became so sour and when the promise was spent. No, this ale does not spend its promise, but that sour and bitter edge does become powerful, dominating the aftertaste like a vast mustachio'd jovial uncle, preparing its own plans to avoid the spectre of infiltration, violence and assassination.

Never easily pinned down, this complex stout does everything that it needs to do and moves beyond just painting by the numbers. I like it, I'm glad I was able to find it and have it, but it does not match the majesty and the impressive flavours of the 1643 Puritan Stout (click here) nor the coffee and chocolate stylings of Mocha (click here). It does enough to be a stand-out stout that is definitely worth picking up if you see it (my 330ml cost me £2.40) and a worthy addition to my Speciality Sundays but it is 'just' an Imperial Russian Stout - as if such a title could ever be prefaced by 'just'. It's good, it does the job, it tastes good but I'm not sure I could ever love the bitter sheen that is presented, seemingly at odds with the luxurious malts that promise it could be the sort of ale I could sink in. I suppose that's no bad thing, it prevents me zonking out after having it, but sometimes that is what is sought.

Enjoyed best when looking back, at what has gone before, and reviewing the events of tempestuous days in which you have no stake and no real emotional heft. Able at once to judge and to imagine fondly rather than face the reality of chafing to the point where there is literally nothing to lose and challenging those who would seek to place a new yoke without hope of success, of being beaten, being able to rejoice in the reintroduction of pastries and then facing the long road of death and famine that greeted the chance to begin a new future with the hope of a better tomorrow, forever assassinated by 1963. Then, when you're done, put the bottle out for recycling, and go to bed.

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