As pumpkin beers and fall seasonals flood the shelves, for me, this time of year is really only marked by one beer, Samuel Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo. This unique brew is released only on August 1, Yorkshire Day. This holiday is exactly what it sounds like, a day that honors the county of Yorkshire, where Samuel Smith is located. While it takes a while to reach our shores, the beer is definitely out on our shelves now and worth seeking out.
Stingo is an old English term for a strong beer and at 8.0% ABV this beer lives up to its name. This strong ale is aged for a year in oak casks that have only been used to ferment Samuel Smith’s beers, giving it a definite fruity house character. When fresh, the beer tastes of figs and strawberries laced with caramel and oak. There is a gentle alcohol tone to the nose that is enhanced by a subtle spicy aroma. As the beer ages, the fruitiness darkens and tastes more of raisins and dates with a fino sherry note. Although it could age longer I have never been able to hold onto a bottle longer than a year or two before drinking it.
All in the square
For years Samuel Smith’s has been one of my favorite breweries and it remains one of the most distinct and unique breweries in the world. The brewery dates back to 1758 and is still owned by the Smith family. The brewery continues to use water from the original well. Samuel Smith’s has also been using the same yeast strain for over one hundred years. Over time they have grown quite a bit and they have built two breweries next to the original. The smallest one still employs Yorkshire Squares.
What makes Samuel Smith’s beers so different is their fermenters. They are one of only five in the world who use a Yorkshire Square system to ferment their beers. The Yorkshire Square is a two-story cubic fermenter system that consists of a shallow lower chamber and an upper walled deck. There is a large hole that connects the two vessels. During the initial stages of fermentation the beer is occasionally pumped from the lower level to the top in order to keep the yeast in suspension. Once the fermentation has progressed the brewer ceases pumping and allows the natural movement of fermentation to take over.
The vigor of fermentation drives the liquid through the hole to the top deck where the liquid separates from the foam and returns to the lower chamber via pipes. Yeast remains on the top deck which results in a clarified beer and allows easy cultivation for subsequent batches. The walls of the square were traditionally made out of Yorkshire sandstone however Welsh slate became more popular over time. Modern squares use either all-stainless steel walls or a combination of stainless steel and slate. That being said, Samuel Smith’s remains the only brewery in the world to use all-slate squares. Although it is unclear what exactly causes this result, Yorkshire Squares are known to give the beer a fruitier character and a fuller, softer mouthfeel.
Drinking at the Olde Cheese
There is a curiosity in the organization of English pubs. In most countries there are explicit laws that stop breweries from owning bars. In the UK they have what is know as a tied house system. This means that a brewery can either outright own drinking establishments or have a contract with them that gives the brewery exclusive rights to serve their beer there. As you could imagine this system leads to monopolies and larger breweries dominating the pub scene (at one time Bass owned 7,300 houses) so the tied house system has had several laws put in place over the past few decades however the system still remains in the UK.
Samuel Smith owns over 200 establishments in England and still delivers beer to the nearby pubs using horse-drawn carts. Of the places they own, one of the most famous is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of London’s oldest pubs. There has been a pub there since 1538 however the current building dates back to 1667 when it was rebuilt after burning down in the Great Fire of 1666. The Olde Cheese (as it is sometimes known) has served many literary icons, such as Mark Twain and Lord Tennyson, but it is most known for being one of Dickens’ favorite pubs.
Years ago I was in London and sought out the historic Olde Cheese. With some effort I found the slim alleyway that leads to the pub. My eyes had to adjust as I moved from the bright summer day into the dimly lit interior. There are several drinking areas and I made my way down the swirling passageways to a lower cellar area whose stone archways hinted at the monastic origins of the site. I ordered their Imperial Stout and watched the bartender pump beer into my glass. English beers are often served on a beer engine, this device pumps the beer from the cask rather than using an external gas tank to push the beer out of the keg.
The Imperial Stout from Samuel Smith is one of the smoothest examples of the style you will find. It is not the intense, syrupy and bitter beast that you sometimes get in American imperial stouts. This beer has a clean, milk chocolate flavor with a plum liqueur undertone. Drinking this rich, velvety brew in the depths of the murky pub gave the beer a warming character that nicely complimented the stonework. Samuel Smith also produces a fuller, sweeter Oatmeal Stout and the drier Taddy Porter. After grabbing a pint of their mineral-themed Old Brewery Bitter I made my way back to the exterior and off to the next site.
Yorkshire Stingo may just come once a year but every beer the brewery offers is worthwhile. Although it has grown quite a bit over the years, the brewery has remained true to their message. Samuel Smith’s loyalty to traditional techniques and beer styles make it one of the jewels of the English beer scene and an icon in the world of beer.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, October 16, 2014