The Great Usurper

Catherine the Great, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias, did not fuck a horse. They were just friends.

For that matter, her name was Sophia, and she wasn’t Russian. She did, however, die on the toilet… after creating Russia’s Golden Age, expanding the empire, ensuring peace, modernizing the nation, and creating the first state-sponsored higher education institution for women. The first in all of Europe. And she did it while drinking lots of beer, not even worried about the calories.  

From Prussia With Love

Sophia was born a minor Prussian princess in 1729 and made the poor choice of being born smart instead of super hot. It’s just so hard to feign interest in whatever she’s jabbering on about if her face isn’t fun to look at. It was not going to stop her mother, Johanna, the 18th century’s answer to a Toddlers and Tiaras mom: Sophia was her ticket to the royally good life that she desperately craved.

Stage Mom Johanna’s dead brother was once engaged (when alive, thankfully) to Russia’s current monarch, Empress Elizabeth, who had a male heir up for grabs. Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter III, was grandson of the great Russian modernizer, Peter the Great. Peter III forgot to inherit his grandfather’s greatness. Got at all that? Basic gist: Peter the Great’s grandson is Tsarina Elizabeth’s nephew. He needs a wife.

Peter was born and spent formative years in Kiel in present-day Germany. Brought over against his will, he thought Russia suuuuucccked, a sentiment that rarely goes over well with Russians. He was bad at the language, all he wanted to do was drill soldiers, and he had precisely zero chill. Granted, he’d been pretty severely abused as a child, but he had a habit of hurting animals (always a great sign) and had no interest in book learnin’. He was also shit at the violin. Hereditary power is always a good idea, guys.

Using the dead brother connection, Johanna brought Sophia over to Russia so she could be inspected by Empress Elizabeth. Sophia really impressed Elizabeth with her wit and eagerness to assimilate to Russian culture, so Sophia and shithead Peter III tied the knot. When she was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, Sophia became Catherine (named after Elizabeth’s much beloved ((and peasant-slash-Peter the Great’s successor)) mother).

Elizabeth eventually kicks the bucket and Peter and Catherine take the throne. That went about as well as you can imagine. Peter III was increasingly hated, not only by his people, but also by his popular, smart wife. In all fairness, he did some cool stuff: religious freedom, creating Russia’s first state bank, and taking away the landowner’s legal right to kill their serfs, but overall it wasn’t a great run. After a daring coup, Catherine takes sole command of Russia. Peter survived his imprisonment only a few days into her reign, which was totally normal and not at all suspicious.

Behind Every Shit Tsar is a Great Woman

The empress formerly known as Sophia decides Russia could use a little more room, expanding east and west, establishing the first Russian presence in Alaska and set about modernizing the agrarian country, which often must’ve felt like trying to get a 5-year-old to clean his room.

She survived a particularly batshit and bloody rebellion when a Cossack named Pugachev who looked, spoke, and acted nothing like the now-dead Peter III, pretended to be the very dead former-Tzar and suggested everyone join his raping and pillaging party to get his throne back. Some of those people looked around at each other, well aware this definitely wasn’t their dead emperor, shrugged, and went along with it. The rebellion was eventually defeated, partly because it seems like there wasn’t much of plan beyond the carnage? The peasants and serfs who joined in, many part of indigenous groups like the Tartars and Cossacks, had genuine grievances with the Russian monarchy, but surely there was a less rapey approach to conflict resolution.

Catherine was respected, and even feared, by other world leaders and “the Great” title was tacked onto her nameplate by the Russians in her lifetime, though she tried to reject it. The more she rejected the title, the more they believed she deserved it. Well played, Catherine. Well played.

In between all this coup d’etat-ing, world changing, art collecting, rebellion-quashing, and educating, she made time for her many gentlemen callers. Notably, you’ve got Grigori Potemkin (namesake of “Potemkin Villages”), Grigory Orlov (believed by some to be the real father of Catherine’s shit son Paul I), and Stanislaw Poniatowski (the very reluctant King of Poland). Her zero-fucks-given policy toward how women should behave in the sexual context led to a number of rumors and legends, including the rather absurd horse rumor.

She died at 67 from a stroke, that, yes, happened while she was on the toilet, but if we can move past it with Elvis, surely we can with Catherine, too.

So, what kind of beer was Catherine swigging? Because order a keg.

Russian Imperial Stout, a beer that, much like herself, was not Russian. Imperial stouts are a high-alcohol, malty, dark creamy beers with little carbonation, typically served in a snifter, and are part of the porter family, though distinct. Despite being something of a redheaded stepchild now, porters were a game changing beer, paving the way for today’s giant breweries.

There is a lot of myth and mystery around the development of the porter, but it appeared in London around the 1720s and supposedly took its name from the dockworkers and porters who no doubt appreciated the heavy, calorie-laden drink. At the time, brown beer– a beer made from malt– was modified to include hops and allowed to age. Brewers also discovered a new way to roast malt in very high heat.

Let’s let William Bostwick of The Brewer’s Tale explain the science: “Brown malt’s enzymes died, or denatured, in the high heat disrupting the cellular machinery that would otherwise convert the grain’s starches into fermentable sugars. With starches  still too raw for yeast to digest, a beer made with brown malt stayed sweet, thick, rich, and relatively low in alcohol. And that was porter.”

Hello, porter. Stout comes into play as a synonym for “strong” as opposed to “slender” beer, which would be weaker. Until about the 1800s, stout could apply to any beer of any color.

Story goes Peter the Great, who was keen to make Russia more western, discovered porters on a trip to London. He requested they ship some to his wintery empire, and not one to be ignored, kegs were sent over– but because shit takes a long time to get to Russia, the beer spoiled. Barclay’s of London solved the problem by upping the hops (a natural preservative) and alcohol and the new and improved porter successfully made its way into cold Russian hearts. It’s likely not entirely true– more likely British officials in Russia imported it and it spread that way. The higher alcohol content was probably down to Russian tastes, not due to any travel-related spoilage. But seriously, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

We know for sure Catherine loved the stuff. The stout Catherine ordered (in large quantities), was made by Thrale’s Anchor Brewery, an English company. No one had to BYOB in Cate’s court. Anchor Brewery is given the distinction of being the first to really produce Russian Imperial Stouts, but its history of name changes can be confusing. By the time Catherine is relaxing over a stout after a hard day’s autocrating, the brewery making it was known as Barclay Perkins & Co.

Today a number of breweries have revived the Imperial Stout. If you’re looking for the Yankee answer, try the fittingly named The Czar from Avery Brewing Company. It comes in at 10.6% ABV, so channel your Russian fortitude, but it’s a delicious toffee-fruity-anise concoction. Want to stay true to its English roots? Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout remains a crowd favorite.

You could also go with the somewhat ominous Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout from North Coast Brewing Co. They claim to brew it in the style of an English brewery in the 1700s that would’ve specifically served Catherine– no matter what, it’s been well received and has a ABV of 9%.

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