As they now have for years, thousands of crazed, largely bearded beer geeks descended on the small city of Munster, Indiana this weekend. To a man (and woman), they were there in pursuit of Dark Lord Imperial Stout, the most sought-after yearly release from Three Floyds Brewing. Perhaps the most visible and emblematic “white whale” of the American craft brewing landscape, the fervor for Dark Lord has been replicated on a smaller scale at many other craft brewers around the country, who all release their own prestige stouts once a year. From Surly Darkness or Cigar City’s Hunahpu to Bell’s Black Note or The Bruery’s Black Tuesday, they’re all going to be a chore to acquire.
So what if you don’t have the kind of time it takes to track one of these elusive beers down? Thankfully for you, there are some great alternatives out there available all year round—imperial stouts that are accessible, widely distributed and often quite a bit more affordable. Here are 10 of the best imperial stouts you’ll never have to buy tickets for or stand in line to drink.
Perhaps the best widely available, canned imperial stout out there, Ten FIDY is the big, roasty antithesis to Dale’s Pale Ale, the dark side of Oskar Blues’ flagship brews. It’s only available for half of the year, but you can still usually find some for a few months afterward, and it’s easy to stock up. In terms of flavor profile, Ten FIDY is like a blueprint for building a classic Russian Imperial Stout with a bit of an American twist. It’s intense, but still goes down smoother than the 10.5% ABV would have you expect.
Speedway Stout is so good that it’s hard to believe it could be available year-round, and yet it is. Regularly appearing on lists of the best beers in the world, alongside its barrel-aged versions, any bottle of Speedway Stout is heady stuff. It’s brewed with coffee, and yet unlike most coffee stouts that addition is only a small component of its whole. Very big, intense stuff at 12% ABV, and probably the priciest beer on this list, but fully worth the indulgence. Indeed, knocking back an entire 750 ml bottle of this stuff is the definition of indulgence—you may want to share.
I’m no fan of the term “session IPA,” but if there’s such a thing as a “session imperial stout” then Central Waters Satin Solitude is pretty much the perfect example. At only 7.5% ABV it’s right on the edge of what could legitimately be called an imperial or double stout, but it doesn’t skimp on flavor at all. It stays away from the cloying sweetness of many bigger stouts and instead hinges around some great roast-forward character, which makes it one of the most drinkable imperial stouts you’ll find. And moreover, it’s CHEAP—I think I once saw a six-pack of this stuff for $7.99. You do not find that kind of value too often in the world of imperial stout.
With Great Divide’s imperial stout, Yeti, you really have your choice of flavor. The base beer is a good example of the American-style imperial stout, packing intense hop bitterness and piney character that stands up well to the malt. But then there are all the variants—Barrel-Aged Yeti, Chocolate Oak-Aged Yeti, Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti (pictured), Oatmeal Yeti and additional versions that are more difficult to find. It’s a great concept that allows drinkers to see exactly what affect factors like oak aging or the addition of oatmeal have on the final product.
It’s interesting how alcohol strength doesn’t always relate directly to the sheer volume of flavor in these beers, and B.O.R.I.S. is a pretty good example of a beer that tastes even bigger than its 9.4% ABV. The oatmeal only enhances the silky texture, while strong alcohol presence amplifies impressions of dark fruit. Unbelievably though, this beer gets even bigger with a barrel-aged version, as well as the more limited D.O.R.I.S. The Destroyer variant, a 10.5% ABV monster that thankfully cranks up the hop presence in an attempt to balance out the sweetness and booze. Regardless, this is one for the decadent stout drinker.
Another imperial stout that tends more toward the drinkable side of the spectrum, this 8% ABV offering is well-balanced with coffee and nutty flavors. Fairly faithful to the original British origins of Russian Imperial Stout, it features the odd combination of American Simcoe hops and British Fuggles, which is certainly not something you see every day. Simply a solid option for everyday drinking, and one of the few imperial stouts you’re likely to run across in the liquor store’s “Pick Six” section. This might serve as an excellent introduction to someone just discovering imperial stout, much in the same vein as North Coast’s venerable Old Rasputin.
Previously known as Vampire Killer, this imperial stout updated its name thanks to some litigious wine makers, but it got even tastier in the process. It’s 11% ABV, but actually fairly balanced, roast-heavy but with strong iced coffee and chocolate flavors and a lingering hint of smoke. It’s a superlative American imperial stout from a brewery that dependably cranks out world-class stouts. I’m a big fan of this one.
It’s an annual release, but Stone typically makes enough of their excellent imperial stout that you can find it all year round if you know where to look. Like anything from Stone you can expect a good charge of American hops, which puts a bit of a West Coast spin on this “Russian” imperial stout. Its wide availability makes this an ideal beer to cellar; simply go out and buy a handful of them each year and then save at least one in a cool, dark place. Five years down the line, you’ve got yourself a ready-made vertical tasting—just remember to invite a lot of friends if you’re not planning on getting trashed.
Idaho’s Grand Teton is underrated as a brewery, so it’s no surprise this imperial stout is often overlooked as well. It tastes quite a bit bigger than its 8% ABV, a complex brew redolent with caramel and a tasteful touch of smoked malt as well. If this beer came from a brewery like Founders, it would be rightfully celebrated. Definitely an imperial stout deserving of more attention.
An imperial stout with the unusual twist of a Belgian yeast strain, this is among the best American-made examples of “Belgian imperial stout.” The base characteristics of roast and smoke don’t change, but the Belgian twist brings out intriguing flavors of spice and especially dried fruits such as raisin and prune. It’s great, creative stuff that happens to be available year-round. No line-standing required.