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.