Near the end of the 18th century, British brewers began exporting pale ales to India to nourish its troops, and dark ales like stouts and porters to Baltic regions for more entrepreneurial reasons. Stronger, and with a more aggressive hop prescription, these beers could survive the long, arduous sojourn without spoilage. Naturally, these beers were much different than their progenitors, and hence, were considered entirely new styles.
Both India pale ale and particularly the “imperial” stouts had an effect in a commercial sense at first, but their enduring effect on modern beerdom could be considered even more profound. The strong stouts in particular are favored by beer aficionados for their rich, luxurious depth, and fairly symbolize the penchant of American brewers for big beers. Perhaps just as important to nouveau brewers is that they deliver the notion that almost any beer can be “imperialized.” Thus, imperial stouts can be credited with two weighty contributions to the beer world.
The Birth of Strong Stout
Throughout the 18th century, porter and its offspring, stout, were at the height of their popularity in England. A thriving shipping industry, combined with convenient shipping routes in the Baltic Sea, allowed the brewers to send their wares to innumerable ports therein. Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, the Baltic states, and western Russia all were destinations of the exported dark English brews. Savvy brewers took advantage of the demand abroad and made the strong and hoppy adaptations available for the burgeoning market.
Strong Baltic porters are still produced in Poland, Finland and Sweden as a distinct style adopted from the original English brewers. Strong stout, however, was more favored in Russia. The well-traveled Peter the Great may have been the first to insist on the import of British beers to Czarist Russia. Stout was also favored by the Russian Imperial Court of the era and, legend has it, was the preferred beer of that immutable rogue, Rasputin. The strong, dark character of the brews fit perfectly with the excessive gustatorial proclivity of the contemporary nobility and court.
Though the history of imperial stout is somewhat murky, it was indeed a London brewery that is credited with popularizing the style as a strong, exported stout. Around 1781, Barclay Perkins began exporting its stout to assorted ports in the Baltic region. Purposely brewed to be a formidable beer, it would easily withstand the voyage. The serendipitous extension of this attribute was that it was also perfectly suited for the cold, gnarly climate, where spirits were very much favored. When Empress Catherine II discovered it, its place in Russian legend was cemented. The commercial viability of the brew ensured that the style endured.
Today, under the name of Courage, the same imperial stout is still brewed in London. The brewery states that it is the same beer that was exported to Russia over 200 years ago. It invokes the visage of Catherine herself on the label.
New World Imperialism
Nowhere is the imperial stout style more prevalent, revered and consumed than the United States. Of course, American brewers have put their own slant on the style, but they have retained the core, sublime qualities that make big beer lovers drool. Anyone who has had regular stout of American origin can vouch for the depth that they provide, but imperial versions are a quantum leap beyond. The legions of standard stout devotees may not sidle up easily to the extra complexity, but this is what American craft brewing has become–a little more of everything. Perhaps this owes to a spirit of individuality, a chance to call something one’s own.
This is ever so apparent in imperial stouts—an adherence to historical guidelines out of respect and an appreciation for tradition, coupled with a flair that doesn’t compromise, yet is slightly aberrant. The most common way to describe the phenomena is “envelope-pushing,” a healthy trend among brewers even in more traditional brewing centers worldwide. Such trendsetters mean no disrespect to heritage, simply a broadening of it, with a bit of invention thrown in.
Imperial stouts are just as likely to be a year round offering as they are a seasonal. It matters little either way, because of their strength and aging qualities, imperial stouts can be enjoyed anytime. Imperial stout labels often evoke images of impending trouble or dubious characters, a warning to the drinker of the respect he or she should reserve for the beer.
It is rather simple to qualify the basic character of an imperial stout, which sounds foolish, considering that they are as complex as any beer. The commonality among imperial stouts is that they are big and roasty. Beyond that, it is pointless to pigeonhole them because of that very same complexity. Almost any type of malt could be used, as could any type of hop. The subtleties and nuances are what make these beers distinctive.
Like any beer, an imperial stout relies on a foundation of high-quality base pale malt, which, of course, would comprise the majority of the grist. The requisite roasted barley is used at roughly the same percentage as in smaller stouts, somewhere around 8 to 10 percent. The remainder spans the malt continuum at the brewer’s discretion. Chocolate malt is a popular addition, as is caramel or even Munich malt. These character malts should not sit in the forefront of the overall profile, but should serve as a brushstroke in the palette of depth that makes a good imperial stout. Unusual grain additions are uncommon but not altogether absent. Oatmeal or wheat can add a creaminess and aid in head retention, which is often a problem in high-alcohol beers. The high proportion of character malt leaves a fairly substantial amount of residual body and full mouthfeel.
The hop character of imperial stout can run from fairly low, putting the maltiness up front, to somewhat forceful, adding some balance and yet more character. Hop variety is not terribly critical, but any of the catty, American types that are high in alpha acid might interfere a little too much with subtleties. Some do exhibit that signature Northwest US hop profile, and do it well enough to put a footprint of America in the brew without throwing the beer out of kilter. Though imperial stouts are substantial in alcoholic strength, there should not be a perception that the beer is overly attenuated. There should be a balance between the sheer muscle of the beer and the alcohol. A good brewer will make sure that this is the case.
A Tempting Portrait
Tasting imperial stouts make for great contemplative sessions, be they solo or shared, with any number of aromas and flavors intertwined within the portrait. The combination of roasted barley and other dark character malts gives imperial stouts a bittersweet personality. Notes of coffee, even espresso, are often present. These beers should not be overly estery, but often hints of prune or raisin are noticeable.
Needless to say, imperial stouts age quite nicely if they are properly brewed, and like barley wine, will change significantly over time. They might pick up some oxidative or winey notes. After all, they were initially brewed to stand the test of time. Their full-bodied nature and warming strength make them a perfect winter warmer and nightcap.
If ever there were a brew that is perfect for dessert, imperial stouts are that. Imperial stouts and chocolate are made for each other. Rich chocolate cake, truffles, or plain dark chocolate are the consummate company for succulent imperial stouts. If cigars are your indulgence, then you need look no further for a companion than imperial stout.
The trend to “imperialize” beer styles has had yet another boost in the past few years in America, just as regular India pal ale introduced America to hoppy beers 20 years ago. Though it may seem redundant, the current darling in the beer world is imperial India pale ale. Also known as double IPA or extra IPA, it is yet another example of stretching the borders until new styles are born, innovative parameters are tested, and in the end, drinkability does not wane. No doubt, if you are reading this magazine, you have had at least one such brew. Imperial porters, brown ales, and pilsners are all available. Imperial IPAs are proving to be a bit of a challenger to imperial stout, but there is little doubt who the undisputed heavyweight champion is for now.
It’s debatable whether imperial stouts are so named because of their original connection to royalty or because of their brewers’ far-ranging intentions. What is certain is that imperial stouts have done much to expand the horizons and broaden the appreciation for world class beers. If you live in the United States, you have literally dozens to choose from. It could be said that imperialism begins at home.
Samuel Smith’s Imperial StoutABV: 7.0
Tasting Notes: From Yorkshire’s oldest surviving brewery, Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout was first brewed in the 1980s for the American market to honor England’s tradition of strong export ales. It pours deep brown-black with a sustained brown head. The aroma is a mixture of malted milk, dark chocolate and molasses. The mouthfeel is not overwhelming, but it is still rich and creamy, and the flavor is of roasted malt and molasses with little notice of hops. Yet another masterpiece from a world class brewery. Few beers at 7.0 percent ABV are this enthralling.
North Coast Brewing Old RasputinABV: 8.9
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Fort Bragg, CA, and named for arguably Russia’s most notorious rapscallion, Old Rasputin Imperial Stout is equally noteworthy. It is also one of the best and most respected beers available. Black as midnight, it smells of toffee and dark roast coffee. Semisweet chocolate and rich malty flavors accompany a thick, dextrinous palate. Some dark fruit in the flavor. Deceptively drinkable. Rasputin himself would grin mischievously if he could get his hands on one of these.
Victory Brewing Storm King StoutABV: 9.1
Tasting Notes: From Downingtown, PA, Storm King is one of many excellent beers that Victory brews. It might be the best. Espresso, chocolate and alcohol emanate from this opaque elixir. Some hop character adds to the complex aroma. The flavor is dominated by the roasty notes, but hints of chocolate and raisins are quite noticeable, and the hops come through as well. There is no doubt that this is a strong beer upon tasting. It would be hard to find a better example of the style.
Brooklyn Black Chocolate StoutABV: 8.5
Tasting Notes: Produced by renowned brew master and culinary expert Garrett Oliver, this seasonal imperial offering is one of the most well-rounded and complex strong beers, period. Inky black, with aromas of burnt chocolate and fruit in the nose. Creamy and smooth in the mouth. The flavor is reminiscent of malted milk, chocolate, coffee and dark fruit. This is the perfect after-dinner drink and, specifically, a dessert beer. I have no doubt that Garret was thinking about chocolate treats and/or fine cigars when he crafted this outstanding beer.