Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Black Velvet, Brett and the beer that came back from the dead

Christmas at the old Courage Brewery by Tower Bridge began with Black Velvet and oysters. Not just any Black Velvet, though, as Jim Robertson (the head brewer at Well’s and Young’s, who began his career on the south bank of the Thames) explains. “Every Christmas, the brewers got together in the sampling room, all dressed up, at noon on Christmas Eve,” he says.

“The head brewer would produce a 13-year-old magnum of Russian Stout and a 13-year-old magnum of vintage champagne  - which I’m lead to believe is the optimum age for vintage champagne, but I’m not an expert!  And the two were mixed together in an old enamel jug in the sample room  to form the brewer’s Christmas Black Velvet. Then the porters came in from the market with huge plates of oysters; we started our Christmas festivities with black velvet and oysters.”

It’s no wonder that Robertson, who worked at Horselydown between 1977 and its closure in 1982, has been the driving force behind reviving this most fabled of beers. It was in 2006 that the resurrection of this beer – which was last brewed in the early 1990s – first became possible. “That was when we [Well’s and Young’s] bought the Courage brands,” he says. “That immediately refreshed my memory. The major brews that we produced were Courage Best and Courage Directors - but IRS caused most excitement.

“It took probably about three years to get anybody else interested in it. There was not much enthusiasm four or five years ago for strong bottled beers: it was perceived to be flying in the face of commercial wisdom. But I was very passionate and I talked to ex-colleagues from Courage: a chap called Tim O’Rourke, who I’d worked with for many years, and others. They teased me: ‘when are you going to bring it back?’

“The key moment was when we started to work in the US with an export team. I was at a ‘Meet The Brewer’ function in Philadelphia, in a bar with the importer, and the bar owner said: ‘You used to work for Courage. Would you like to try some Russian Stout I’ve got stacked away in the cellar?’ So with great enthusiasm, we tucked into the poor chap’s stock of bottles going back to the seventies! Much-treasured, we polished them off. He said it was about time we started brewing it again and replenished his stock.”

And here we are. This second vintage has been well-received, although beer geeks would surely like to have had a taste from the barrels that were seeded with Brettanomyces - but never released to the public.

“We did some experimentation where we took some of the brew off, put it in separate barrels and seeded it with Brett,” says Robertson. “That produces a very interesting beer but for me it wasn’t correct. It wasn’t Russian Stout. I’ve no doubt, particularly in America, there would be a heck of a lot of interest in a barrel-aged Brett version but that wasn’t what I wanted to produce.”

If that seems a little bit of a shame, then the beer that has been released is ample recompense. The effort required to produce it has been written about elsewhere but the steps taken to make sure the second vintage (2012) matched the first as closely as possible in terms of flavour are interesting. “I don’t believe the average drinker would be able to tell the difference between the vintages,” he says, “but I noticed some difference.

“The second time, we brewed six times as much beer as in 2011. There was quite a significant difference between batches – six brews, divided into two maturation tanks. One matured better than the other- it was a matter of yeast quality, I believe the second batch got too much dead yeast and hop from the fermenter. We re-pitched the second one, and blended it together before bottling. That meant that the final blend of 2012 was very similar to 2011.”

Robertson’s experience with IRS has clearly whetted his appetite for brewing historic beers, of which there are a number in Well’s and Young’s portfolio. “There’s  a couple I’d like to work on,” he says.

“One – which I’m keeping under my hat -  is a very standard, working-class beer which goes back to my Courage roots, and another one that I can tell you about - because we’re just about to launch it - is McEwan’s Scotch, which is seven per cent ABV. Again we’re really focused on the American market. It’s totally different to other beers in that category: sweet, full-drinking and lower in hop character.”

I spoke to Jim Robertson recently for an article in the Financial Times. Not everything he said could go into that story, though, so the rest is here. Strictly speaking, of course, he’s not really a London brewer - but his experience of London beer and brewing surely qualifies him to appear here.


  1. Great article! It's interesting to read about beer history, particularly the stuff that doesn't really wind up on the radar very often. Thanks!

  2. I've been brewing a beer based on Courage Imperial Russian Stout but with the Brettanomcyes for a few years now at the Old Dairy Brewery.

  3. That's rubbish about the Brettanomyces - up until 1993 Courage Russian Stout was seeded with it. I'd say if there's no Brettanomyces in the new version, then it's not the real thing.

  4. "a very standard, working-class beer which goes back to my Courage roots"

    That will either be a dark mild, or Courage Burton, though Jim is probably too young to remember that.

    Great to hear McEwan's Scotch is being revived - great beer. Now - how about Newcastle Star?

    Martyn Cornell