Brew Day!… “Icon”

Voltaire wrote that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

At around the same time, a new style of beer was being created at Henry Thrale’s Anchor Brewery in Southwark. It was a dark beer, made using brown malts rather than the black patent malts that became more common in the 19th century, and it was brewed by order of the Imperial Court of Czarina Catherine the Great.

That style, which became known as “Imperial Russian Stout”, just about survived into the 1980s.

Through the 1800s it was brewed and exported to Russia and the Baltics by Barclay, Perkins & Co, which had acquired Thrale’s brewery. Its records provide us with the earliest surviving recipe, from 1856, which shows a wort with specific gravity of 1.107, implying a finished beer of around 10% ABV or more.

The First World War and the Russian Revolution disrupted the trade between the U.K. and Russia, leaving some local, Baltic brewers to maintain the style (often fermented with lager yeasts). Barclay Perkins continued to brew and mature it for the domestic market but, by the 1980s, acquisitions by Courage and then by John Smith’s ultimately saw the beer fall out of production.

A revival in 2011 by Wells & Young’s, which had acquired the Courage brands from Heineken, proved short-lived. By then, however, the style had become a cornerstone of the U.S. craft-beer output. The seeds of this phenomenon were sown in the 1980s when a drinks merchant encouraged John Smith’s neighbours and family rivals in Tadcaster, Samuel Smith’s, to make an example of the style for export—a beer that is still going strong (if you will pardon the pun) to this day.

By now, of course, this style is no longer brewed for the royal court of Russia. “Imperial”, in beer circles, appears to signify little more than “strong”.

But then again, what’s in a name?

My latest brew, “Icon”, is definitely a Stout. It is pretty strong, too. With a nod to Voltaire, I am not going to let the fact that it is neither Imperial nor Russian get in the way of a striking label and a good marketing strategy.

“Icon” (November 2019)                              

In the mash:

  • 6.0kg of Maris Otter malt
  • 2.0kg of Crystal 200 malt
  • 500g of Chocolate malt
  • 300g of Oats
  • 300g of Wheat
  • 90 minutes of rest

Cold Steeped:

  • 300g of Carafa III malt
  • 300g of Roasted Barley

In the boil:

  • 100g of muscovado sugar for 60 mins
  • 50g of Sibylla hops for 60 mins
  • 30g of liquorice root for 5 mins
  • 60 minute boil

Fermented with Wyeast Laboratories 1728 “Scottish Ale”

Starting Gravity: 1.090 / 21.6° Plato

Finishing Gravity: 1.023

ABV: 8.6%

What is in a name?

“Icon”, or “икона” in Russian Cyrillic, refers to a work of religious art that is especially common in the Eastern Christian churches, generally focusing on the figures of Christ, Mary, saints or angels.

For the label on this beer I chose a particularly well-known example: a depiction of the Trinity that is the only icon authenticated as the sole work of the 15th-century painter Andrei Rublev.

Not much is known about Andrei Rublev’s life, but in the 1960s the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky imagined eight episodes from it in an epic screen biography.

PoA para break (small)

But what’s in a name?

Is “biography” the right word here, given the lack of documented facts about the subject’s life?

No, this is a film. It is a film that revels in its own being as a film. A film that exemplifies the possibilities of film. It attempts to transport the viewer entirely into its 15th-century Russian world. It leaves behind dramatic linearity of narrative and replaces it with a coherence forged from images and symbols—the cross; the horse; the weather of each season; paint applied, dripped, splayed and daubed. It tells its story of sweeping historical forces and intimate details in self-consciously filmic techniques—the tracking shot, the crane shot, the extreme close-up, the panoramic vista. It abandons any didactic project in favour of unresolved conversations and mysterious revelations.

PoA para break (small)

Conversations and revelations about what?

About art, mainly. What is the purpose of art? How should it relate to the world as it is? Do we create works of art as means of telling the truth, or as a source of comfort against the harshness of truth? Or does the process of creating and thinking about art somehow reveal a deeper truth, perhaps the deepest truth: that the truth is comforting?

PoA para break (small)

Andrei Rublev considers his art to be life-giving and a source of comfort. After all, he depicts figures from a story that is supposed to be a source of comfort to all people in their fallen world.

His character is contrasted with that of Kirill, who lacks Andrei’s talent and responds with a fit of envious cruelty when Andrei is chosen over him to assist in the decoration of the great Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. He is also contrasted with his own apprentice, Foma, who directs his considerable talent towards perfecting practical, technical details rather than towards any more profound understanding of what his art should mean. Foma is inspired in his imagination by the wing of a dead swan, which he pokes and worries with a stick: when we instrumentalise the world around us in pursuit of our art, the scene appears to say, we render that world lifeless and break the all-important connection between our art and reality.

But Andrei is tested in his beliefs.

While he says that he cannot understand how the Theophanes the Greek can be such a great master painter when he cynically regards the Russian people to be so base and ignorant, he feels shame at his own unforgiving bigotry when it is directed against the persecuted pagan woman, Marfa. He feels unable to start work on an important commission because its subject, the Last Judgement, fills him with disgust: he hates the thought of his art being used to frighten the faithful into submission. He saves the “holy fool”, Durochka, from being raped when the invading Tatars lay waste to the town of Vladimir—but the heavy price he has to pay is to kill the man who was attacking her.

The cumulative trauma causes him to take a vow of silence and renounce painting.

PoA para break (small)

Resolution, of a sort, comes in the final episode of Andrei’s life that we are shown.

Here, Boriska, the orphaned son of a bellmaker, offers us a pointedly cynical idea of what art is about. When the Prince’s men arrive in his village looking for his father in order to commission a new church bell, Boriska tells them that his entire family has been wiped out by plague and that he is now the only keeper of the bell-making secrets his father passed onto him: the secrets of his father’s art become his priceless ticket out of the devastated village.

It’s not long before we, the viewer, get a sense that something is not quite right. The workers complain that Boriska’s father did things differently. As the project becomes ever more unwieldly and expensive, the young man seems to want to slink into the background and relieve himself of any responsibility for the bell that may or may not be forming beneath the huge clay mould his army of workers have clawed out of the earth. We know that beheading awaits them all if the bell fails to ring.

In the climactic scene, the bell is hung and a large, suspended ringer is swung back and forth for what seems like minutes, gathering momentum.

The bell rings out clearly.

However, when Andrei finds Boriska, he is not celebrating with everyone else but sobbing to himself, stretched out on the ground. He confesses to Andrei that his father never did tell him the secrets of the bell-making art.

PoA para break (small)

What have we witnessed? A miracle? A divine intercession? A colossal gamble by a young man with nothing to lose and yet everything to lose? An artwork like every other—the instrument by which any artist seeks to make a living, to keep body and soul together, which may or may not resonate, bell-like, with the people around him, and with people coming after him?

The film does not answer this question. But it does suggest that, whatever happened, it happened only because of a willingness to let go, to accept that a work of art must be allowed to come into being, and be allowed to be, without contingency or the deadening hand of deliberation, in a state of existential namelessness.

Andrei tells Boriska that he will go on to make more bells and that he will go on to paint more icons. The other Andrei allows his camera to descend into a refining fire, and then gives us the most filmic of filmic gestures: after three hours of monochrome images, the great painter’s icons explode onto the screen in vivid colour.

Andrei’s figures are splendid and glorious.

But most of all, they emanate a characteristic serenity.

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