UPDATE: The newest version of this list from 2017 blind-tasted and ranked 102 non-barrel-aged imperial stouts. You can read that list here.
Imperial stouts are widely viewed by drinkers, accurately or not, as the apex of craft beer. Along with rare sours and the occasional DIPA, you’re unlikely to find any style that is more often seen in the form of a “special release” or sent to age in a barrel with other unique ingredients. To those who can handle a high volume of flavor intensity, there’s just so much to pick up on in your “typical” imperial stout. Does this one swing in the direction of cocoa or coffee? Sweeter or drier? Dark fruits or the atypical funk of Belgian yeast? And are those chiles prickling on my tongue? You never know—it could very well be all of the above.
When you bring together a huge group of these stouts, then, it’s fascinating to watch the differences open up. It’s interesting to take a sip of a beer you’ve always loved and realize that you’re just not as fond of it as you thought. When compared against some of the best stouts in the world, the “middle of the road” beers reveal themselves as tasty but a step behind. On any other day, we’d be happy to drink them, but on this day they’ve been surpassed. That was a theme of this tasting, because in our heart of hearts, we love imperial stouts. There were very few beers present that we wouldn’t enjoy on their own.
With that said, we must be crazy to take on a tasting this large of high-octane imperial stouts, even though we split it up over the course of three days. But such is our craft beer mania, that we didn’t want to leave anyone off the list—ANYONE, if possible. You will no doubt notice that none of these beers are barrel-aged, either, for the sake of fairness. They run the gamut in styles and flavorings within the world of “imperial stout,” but not one has seen any time inside a barrel of any kind. Don’t worry, we’ll be doing a separate barrel-aged stout ranking in the near future.
Here then, is the full ranking of all 37 imperial stouts we were able to lay hands on, which includes some incredible releases and a few extreme rarities.
37. Upland Teddy Bear Kisses
City: Bloomington, IN
Key ingredient: Unexpected spicy hops
Perfect for: Drinking instead of an American light lager
The verdict: It’s a shame that anyone has to be last place on a list like this one, but the reactions of tasters to Teddy Bear Kisses was essentially a collective “Meh.” All noted an unexpected degree of spicy hop presence in this dry, roasty stout, but several others also thought it had an unusual vegetal or bitter off-flavor on the back end. Still, if we saw it in the cooler of a house party next to some Bud Lights? We’d give it another shot, without a doubt.
36. Southern Tier Choklat
City: Lakewood, NY
Key ingredient: Essence of Hershey’s chocolate
Perfect for: Drizzling on a sundae
The verdict: There are readers who think we have some kind of grudge against Southern Tier because we’re well-noted as not being Pumking fans, but the brewery genuinely makes a lot of beers we like. The ones we find less palatable are the hugely sweet, artificial-tasting monsters in the vein of Choklat, which is absolutely bursting with the chocolate flavor it promises. Some tasters enjoyed that: “Tastes like stout plus Hershey’s syrup, not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Another less kind soul wrote “tastes like licking the inside of a hot cocoa packet.” Most agreed, however, that Choklat was by no means “bad,” simply targeted at a very specific niche of drinkers who have a raging sweet tooth. If you’re looking to find an imperial stout that may finally cure your chocolate craving permanently, this is the one for you. We’ll probably stick with some of the other Southern Tier stouts higher up the list.
35. Hermitage 2 Tun
City: San Jose, CA
Key ingredient: Mineral-treated water?
Perfect for: Imperial stout-loving Anglophiles
The verdict: This was a bit of an odd ale that none of the tasters could quite put their finger on, although it immediately stood out for a curious minerality in its flavor, like the aroma of a wet stone walkway. Dry and roasty, it seemed more like an imperial stout made in the London style, which was something curiously absent from pretty much all the other selections on the table.
34. New Belgium Salted Belgian Chocolate Stout
City: Fort Collins, CO
Key ingredient: Belgian chocolate and sea salt
Perfect for: Drinkers wanting both savory and sweet
The verdict: A divisive beer—some tasters had trouble placing the salt and chocolate character, while others defended it or said it could use some more amplification. Regardless, the chocolate is not in your face, and the salty tang is slightly easier to pick up upon. After hearing a few of the tasters describing the beer as bland, Paste editor Josh Jackson authoritatively wrote “NOT BORING!” on his list of scores, so there’s your dissenting opinion.
33. Odell Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout
City: Fort Collins, CO
Key ingredient: Lactose and milk chocolate
Perfect for: Swapping out for someone’s chocolate milk to see if they’ll notice the difference.
The verdict: This Colorado ale promises chocolate milk, and that’s pretty much exactly how it tastes. We weren’t entirely certain it was really an “imperial stout,” but at 8.5% ABV it’s firmly in that territory. Fittingly, the body is thinner than most of the others, which helps drinkability a bit. You could say it’s pretty similar to the Southern Tier Choklat while being just a little less rich and syrupy—a good thing, in this particular case. Another beer that should go on the “to drink” list of serious chocoholics.
32. Green Flash Double Stout
City: San Diego, CA
Key ingredient: West Coast hops
Perfect for: Afternoon “session” drinking during your Pacific Northwest cabin retreat. Keep away from sasquatch.
The verdict: All the tasters were quick to note this stout’s piney hop flavors, which isn’t all that surprising, given that this is Green Flash we’re talking about—three fourths of their portfolio is some form of pale ale or IPA. It’s on the bitter side, dry, with some husky grain flavors and a bit of ashy roast. It’s like something a lumberjack would swig out of a hip flask while felling trees.
31. Goose Island The Muddy
City: Chicago, IL
Key ingredient: Brewer’s licorice
Perfect for: Preparing to sing a spirited take on “The Candy Man Can.”
The verdict: The Muddy was certainly a unique beer in our tasting, bringing both molasses and brewer’s licorice into its flavor profile to create something both spicy and sweet. The licorice is definitely there, but doesn’t dominate quite as you might fear it would, which is always a likelihood with beers that use it as a theming ingredient. Rather, you’re left with a complex, anise-flavored beer that is a little off the beaten path of imperial stout profiles, a bit spice-heavy but not bad.