The resurrection of languishing stylistic gems might be America’s greatest contribution to brewing in the past 30 years. This would most certainly be the case with Russian imperial stout. Imperial stout is synonymous with lofty status, and its bold, brawny character is a natural for the attitude and taste of New World microbrewers. Fortified, exported stouts symbolized the respect and far-reaching influence that British brewers enjoyed during their heyday. Today, they convey a message of no-holds barred craftiness among the Americans.
Son of Porter
Porter brewing in England, especially London during the 18th and 19th centuries, was a watershed in brewing history. Massive brewing operations, built on the ambition of the Industrial Revolution, the muscles of city laborers, and the shrewdness of merchants and shippers, meant that porter was truly the first beer that had a worldwide market.
Porter dominated the maritime markets for a full century as British and Irish brewers were equally adept at promoting the popular brew. By the early to mid-19th century, London and Dublin had established themselves as the undisputed heavyweights of European brewing, with the most successful of the brewers producing porter in its various forms.
Porter was actually a collective term for a range of brews that differed only in strength. The most formidable of the bunch usually had the word “stout” attached to it in one way or another to designate it as the premium product. Stout porter was commonly used, as was single, double and eventually, imperial stout.
Imperial stout would get its designation, however, after some further refinement of porter, made for Baltic markets to the east. Shipping beer across the cold North and Baltic seas was far more forgiving to the beer, and perhaps even advantageous, than the long, arduous one through the warmer, spoilage-friendly environs to Asia and Australia.
Until 1817, porter was a brown beer, as amber and brown malt were the easiest and cheapest available brewing grains. It was then that Daniel Wheeler invented a method to create “patent malt,” black, roasted, malted barley that could be used in small quantity to get the desired color in porter and stout without using as much of the harsher brown malt.
Pale malt was also becoming more available, and porter and stout recipes began to reflect this. In Dublin, brewers used grist of pale and patent malt only, whereas in London, brewers kept a good measure of brown and amber malt in the grist. The latter made for more complex, less-attenuated ale, a recipe that approximates all of today’s stouts outside of Ireland.
These brews were heavily exported, the strongest of them favored by the Imperial Court of the Russian Czar (it is believed that Catherine the Great fell in love with strong stouts on a trip to England in the late 1700s). Barclay Perkins, a porter brewer from London, had by this time established itself as a major player in the export of porter and stout into the Baltic regions, virtually monopolizing the Russian market. It was Barclay Perkins’ strongest stout that was sold to the Imperial Court, and gave birth to the style known as imperial stout.
Within two or three decades, many of the former porter brewers were producing imperial stout. The grist was usually composed of pale, amber and brown malt to retain the very character that made London porter and stout famous, and deepened with a single-digit percentage of patent malt. Most were brewed to a gravity of 1080 upwards to over 1100. Thrale’s Anchor Brewery made one for the Empress of Russia herself. These stouts were famously able to keep for several years due to their buxom strength and the cool northern climate.
The second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century saw the market for porter and stout decline to a great degree. A taste for pale lagers and ales had much to do with it, but taxation and rationing during wartime meant that the strength also dropped, leaving imperial versions of stout among the casualties. Some were still being made in England into the 1980s, most notably by Courage, but they had essentially vanished.
By then though, CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) had established a strong foothold in the U.K. with a movement to bring back real and traditional ales in the 1970s. Stout and porter began showing up again on cask in pubs and bottles, to be discovered by a new generation of beer lovers as well as cadres of nostalgic pub goers.
Imperial stout would be taken to new heights in America, where an equally important and long overdue grassroots effort was afoot to reacquaint Yankee beer lovers with traditional beer styles. Bert Grant of Yakima Brewing was a pioneer among American microbrewers, and may have made the first imperial stout here in the early 80s. The number and quality available today are staggering.
Of all the styles revived thanks to the beer renaissance in America, no style is made better more consistently than stout. Imperial stout, though, is where American brewers excel. Everything about the beer falls squarely in the wheelhouse where the mentality is to make big beer, with complex grain bills and hop schedules, and show-stopping depth. Strength and roasty bitterness are the stars, but the supporting cast is the complexity that makes a great imperial stout.
Imperial stouts have, as a matter of course, an opaque black color, given by the generous amounts of roasted barley and the espresso-like finish that defines the style. But between the base of pale malt and roast, brewers use nearly every type of brewing and specialty malt to add body, flavor and aroma as they see fit. Munich, caramel and chocolate malts are commonly used to create a dessert-like brew, with notes of bittersweet chocolate, dark dried fruit, coffee, licorice and burnt sugar in the flavor and aroma.
High protein grains like oatmeal, rye and wheat may be used to add a bit of smoothness and head retention. A creamy, hearty mouthfeel and fullness are key to offsetting the high alcohol content, usually between 8 and 11 percent ABV. Imperial stout should be neither too dense, nor too thin.
Hop profile can vary widely, and American brewers often use imperial stout to show off their kettle skills. A stiff dose of bittering hops can complement the roasted edge rather than take it overboard. Flavor and aroma additions are no different, and surprisingly, most seem to play along well with the other nuances. Most brewers would opt for traditional ale hops, be they English or American, depending on whether or not they want a traditional or nouveau profile, respectively.
If it is truly an American version you want, showcasing that aggressive, resinous Northwestern hops character, then there are plenty out there for you. In fact, there are so many stellar examples that it is hard to choose, but insanely fun to explore. Most hold up well over the long haul, so cellaring only makes the variety even more stunning.
To many, imperial stout is the absolute apex of the brewing arts, and unlike a lot of coveted brews, examples are usually lurking about nearby.
Samuel Smith’s Imperial StoutABV: 7.0
Tasting Notes: From the venerable Old Brewery at Tadcaster, Yorkshire’s oldest, comes this stunningly complex classic. The aroma offers some fruit (apple and raisin), roast, malted milk and a hint of anise. The flavor has dark cocoa, burnt caramel, buttery toffee and molasses, rounded out perfectly by Yorkshire square fermentation. The rich, medium-full body finishes smoothly with the slightest hint of hops. It was introduced in the 1980s as a taste for bigger beers was developing. It was a wise decision.
North Coast Brewing Old Rasputin Russian Imperial StoutABV: 9.0
Tasting Notes: Jet black as expected, with a creamy brown head. The aroma has woodsy American hops shining amid the French roast coffee, mineral and cocoa nib notes. Medium-bodied for the style, there is a decidedly hoppy character to offset the malty, bittersweet chocolate and roasted flavor. The finish is gritty with roasted malt, and bitter from the hops. Quite appetizing for a beer of this strength, it is as mischievous as its infamous namesake, and just as worthy of legend.
Oskar Blues Ten FIDY Imperial StoutABV: 10.5
Tasting Notes: This Lyons, CO, brewery has turned many heads in recent years with their offerings, and Ten FIDY is their finest effort. It looks impressive with black hole darkness, a viscous pour and brown-black head. There is molasses, espresso and cocoa in the aroma. The mouthfeel is full and silky, but not overbearing. Bitter chocolate, malt and roast dominate the flavor with a hint of black licorice stick. Massive at 10.5% ABV, but seductively drinkable, Ten FIDY is among the best America has to offer.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.