10. Straight to Ale Laika Russian Imperial Stout
City: Huntsville, AL
Key ingredient: Perfectly controlled fermentation
Perfect for: After-dinner holiday dessert
The verdict: A delicious and unique offering, this Alabama brewery’s imperial stout packs intense fruity overtones of raspberry and cherry which immediately make it stand out. The fruit plays very nicely with heavy, charred roastiness, giving a great contrast. If you love dark chocolate-dipped raspberry/cherry, this is the one for you. Booziness only adds to and amplifies those flavors—this one runs a little hot, despite being lower in ABV than some of the others on the table. Regardless, these memorable flavors helped it rise above the pack and make us very excited to try some of the barrel-aged variants in our next tasting.
9. Clown Shoes Blaecorn Unidragon
City: Ipswich, MA
Key ingredient: Malt out the wazoo
Perfect for: Enjoying once you have conquered your enemies and secured your legacy.
The verdict: Clown Shoes is simply a brewery that gets big stouts, whether they’re American, Russian, smoked, barrel-aged, chile-infused or any combination of the above. This one is just a classic Russian imperial stout, on steroids, super roasty but with a milk sugar-like sweetness backing it up, chased by dark chocolate and a fleeting hit of hops. This is another beer you could serve someone as a template to what a “Russian imperial stout” actually entails. In a crowded style, this is still an exemplary beer.
8. Avery Mephistopheles
City: Boulder, CO
Key ingredient: Turbinado sugar
Perfect for: Splitting with two or three people if you want to remain level.
The verdict: Surprise—Avery made the strongest beer on the table. We’re shocked. Actually, the truly shocking thing is that even at 17% ABV, this beer isn’t nearly as hot and boozy as you would expect. It’s quite the achievement that they’ve made it as drinkable as it is, and there are plenty of great flavors here as well beyond the alcohol: tons of dried fruit and molasses and particular, as you might expect. It’s hot, rich, strong and has the consistency of motor oil. Definitely one to put away in the cellar and forget about for about five years.
7. Great Lakes Blackout Stout
City: Cleveland, OH
Key ingredient: Simplicity and skillful brewing
Perfect for: Making a trip to the Cleveland airport bearable.
The verdict: This might be the highest flavor-to-ABV ratio on the entire list, because to taste the Blackout Stout, you’d think it was significantly higher than 9%. There’s just so much going on here, it’s hard to believe the simple ingredient list—the beer features great flavors of dark berries (which all tasters noted), strong roast and chocolate, while staying dry. Simply bold, well-made and punching above its already sizable weight class.
6. Oskar Blues Ten Fidy
City: Lyons, CO
Key ingredient: Tons of hops for balance
Perfect for: Taking cold-weather camping, because it’s the only canned beer in the entire tasting.
The verdict: We’ve always liked this beer, but I don’t think anyone expected it to score quite this highly given all the other competition. Still, nobody could deny—this is an expertly made imperial stout, and a strong argument for putting more big stouts in cans. As one taster observed, “not too much of anything,” which might be a perfect descriptor for Ten Fidy. It is balance in a can: A dangerously drinkable but still thick, rich, clean, roasty stout that pours like motor oil but drinks far easier. Once a classic, always a classic.
5. Founders Breakfast Stout
City: Grand Rapids, MI
Key ingredient: Oats, chocolate and two varieties of coffee
Perfect for: Blowing the mind of someone who thinks they “don’t like stouts.”
The verdict: In short, one of the best coffee beers of all time, and one of the best to ever incorporate coffee, chocolate and oatmeal together. This beer is so good that its very name essentially gave birth to an entire subgenre of stouts. If anyone says “breakfast stout,” you know they’re talking about one with coffee and oatmeal, at the very least. A near perfect blend of both sweet and bitter influences, great for both coffee lovers and chocolate seekers in equal measure. Super smooth and more decadent than just about anything else in the 8% ABV range.
4. Spiteful Brewing Malevolence Chocolate Caliente
City: Chicago, IL
Key ingredient: Vanilla bean, cacao nibs, cinnamom Urfa biber chile flakes, dried Aleppo pepper
Perfect for: Getting out of control at your niece’s Quinceanera.
The verdict: One of the biggest out-of-nowhere surprises, this beer from Chicago’s tiny Spiteful Brewing has a lot in common with the Perennial Abraxas: Namely the Mexican hot chocolate comparison. The cinnamon is huge but not too distracting (as long as you like cinnamon), and several tasters remarked upon how well the chiles were integrated into its flavor profile. Make no mistake, this is still a sweet treat, but it’s really impressive stuff.
3. Cigar City Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout
City: Tampa, FL
Key ingredient: No shortage of booze
Perfect for: A Siberian military campaign
The verdict: It’s Hunahpu that gets the most attention, but Cigar City’s non-spiced imperial stout was fighting neck and neck with it in our scores for a top spot, with several tasters actually giving the edge to Zhukov. This beer is all about intensity and complexity of flavors—lots of booze buffering and enhancing its fruitcake and molasses-like flavor profile. One taster went out of his way to stress “figs” as a flavor note, but that’s just one of dozens. This beer is a journey that changes even more as it warms.
2. Cigar City Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout
City: Tampa, FL
Key ingredient: Cacao nibs, vanilla bean, ancho chile, pasilla chile, cinnamon, what isn’t in this beer?
Perfect for: A massive Cuban cigar
The verdict: Yeah, there’s a reason this beer is such a big deal, and a reason that people travel from all over the country to buy it in person during its one-day release at the brewery in Tampa. There’s a lot of imperial stouts rocking this flavor profile of chiles and spices these days, but few of them are doing it with the sophistication and complexity of Cigar City, and that’s what has made Hunahpu one of the craft beer world’s more sought-after whales. In terms of specific flavors: Lots of cinnamon and dark fruit complexity, followed up by chicory coffee, and “chocolate and vanilla make the pepper go easy,” to quote one score sheet. Believe the hype.
1. Good People El Gordo Imperial Stout
City: Birmingham, AL
Key ingredient: More malt than is fit for human consumption
Perfect for: Running your lawnmower if the gas can is empty.
The verdict: Not a single one of us had ever had this beer before, and it’s safe to say it came out of left field and blew us all away. Truth be told, it wasn’t even close. This beer is massive. It’s beyond massive. The flavors are so intense that we immediately thought we’d made a mistake and accidentally included a barrel-aged beer. We seriously called up the brewery the next day just to make sure. The booze hits like a freight train pulling cars filled to the brum with dark fruit, raisin, sherry and even a teensy bit of drying roast. Ultimately, though, El Gordo is extremely rich, beguiling and devastating. Of the 37 non-barrel-aged imperial stouts we were able to get our hands on, it’s the clear winner.