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Of Fish Eggs and Beer
By Jim Anderson

Strange as it may sound, fish and beer go way back. Aside from their inseparability on the tables of most Eastern and Northern European countries, where pickled and kippered herring often encounter crisp pilseners, fish are an actual ingredient in the preparation of many English and American cask-conditioned ales.

But what about those expensive little eggs?

Although I have yet to hear of beer being brewed with caviar, the "roe with mo'" is clearly associated with one beer style in particular, a rich, black ale from England that was made specifically for the courts of the Russian czars. As early as the 18th Century, this product was brewed only for export, unavailable even to those Englishmen who created it. The ale was called Imperial Russian Stout, and its dizzying complexity and strength represented the pinnacle of English -- some say world -- brewing.

This beer was shipped from London through northern waters to the czars, and enjoyed alongside the finest caviar available, a combination which is eternalized in Against Nature, by French Decadent author, J. K. Huysmans, in which he envisions an all-black meal consisting of -- among other things -- Russian rye bread, caviar and stout.

And shipping being what it always has been, a few bottles of this precious stout seem to have fallen off the boats all along the Baltic route, over the centuries spawning local variations on the style, usually referred to as porter. So, whenever you see a Finnish or Polish porter, grab it -- it's most likely brewed in the style of the pre-revolution imperial stouts.

Beer glass Imperial stout is no longer exported to Russia, and has all but disappeared from the English brewing scene. But -- Bolsheviks be damned -- it's still the beer of choice to accompany caviar, with a sweetness that's the perfect foil for the eggs' delicate sour taste, and an alcohol content (7-12% by volume) to rival the effects of any vodka. Fortunately, a revival in traditional beer recipes has popularlized the style Stateside, and domestic versions are readily available in the Philadelphia area.

For a little over $200, you can get a case of 7oz. bottles of the 1993 vintage from the last of the original English producers, John Courage. But a better bet is to accompany your eggs with a more cost-effective American version. Philadelphia's trendy Café Republic serves 7oz. bottles of the delicious Rogue Imperial Stout from Oregon alongside their selection of caviar. Another good bet is the formidable Old Rasputin from Calfornia's North Coast brewery (draft & 12oz. bottles). And for those who want to serve locally-brewed versions, try Yards Imperial Stout (draft only) or Valley Forge Imperial Stout (draft & 12oz. bottles).

Whichever one you choose, your customers will end up with a beer and food combination that's been proven at some of the world's finest tables over the centuries. You'll be offering an experience that will make them feel, if not quite like kings and queens, at least a little like Nicolas and Catherine.

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