Also check out our Let’s Talk Beer Styles: Imperial Stout companion piece, where we dive into the history of Russian imperial stout, and whether there’s actually anything “Russian” about what you’re drinking today.
The last time we tasted (non-barrel aged) imperial stouts it was January of 2015, a full two years ago, only a few months after I’d arrived at Paste. At the time, the fact that we’d assembled 37 imperial stouts to drink seemed like an absurd feat—what, we have to do three whole days of tasting? Who’s got the time???
Well, fast forward two years of Paste beer coverage, and it’s now a whopping 102 imperial freakin’ stouts, and once again, that’s including zero barrel aged or wood aged beers of any kind … because we’re doing those in February. Which is insane, because we were definitely feeling the effects of THIS group, let alone the barrel aged behemoths that are coming. So what I’m saying is: Pray for the Paste staff in February, won’t you? We appreciate it.
This year’s batch of stouts brought us flavors of every possible description and origin. We had coffee stouts, oatmeal stouts, vanilla stouts, maple stouts, sour stouts, mole stouts, peppermint stouts, coconut stouts, fruited stouts, peanut butter stouts, hoppy stouts, peppermint stouts and more. To say that it was a challenge to taste so many different things in a blind setting is an understatement. We had some world-renowned stouts, award-winning beers, and totally unheralded brews that ended up dominating the competition. We pretty much saw it all.
So let’s waste no more time, and get right into it.
Like every other blind-tasting at Paste, we acquire these beers in a variety of ways. Most are sent in directly by the breweries when we send out a call for that style. Others we’re able to purchase directly because they’re available in Georgia. In the end, we’re at the mercy of press contacts and seasonal availability. Sometimes, we simply can’t get a beer that we know we should have, either because it’s out of season or because the brewery chooses not to participate. As such, despite the fact that the title says “best,” the most accurate title is simply “We blind-tasted 102 imperial stouts, and here’s what happened.”
Ultimately, there’s no way I can adequately communicate the amount of hours that goes into each of these tastings. For this particular one, I visited six different liquor stores while searching for a particular stout that was important for us to have, only for it to not even make the ranked section of the list in the blind tasting. Other times, important beers don’t arrive for reasons completely out of our control. For this one, our friends at Grimm Artisanal Ales in NYC shipped us two stouts—including the 2015 GABF gold medal winner, Double Negative—only for UPS to lose track of the package en route. As of this article’s publish date, it STILL hasn’t been located. So we missed out on a GABF gold medal winner in this tasting just because of the incompetence of a parcel delivery service. This is the kind of stuff that affects each and every tasting.
— There was no ABV limit for this tasting, for obvious reasons. All beers had to be labeled as “stout”—no imperial porters, which I disallowed because I figured if we accepted “imperial porter,” then we would probably have to accept “Baltic porter,” and then we’re only a step away from accepting imperial schwarzbiers, etc.
— There was no limit of entries per brewery, but I did disallow the occasional beer for being too similar to another entry. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
— Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, professional brewers and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
— Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP tasting.
At this point, it feels like I always seem to write a disclaimer here, explaining that we quite enjoyed most of the beers in The Field, but this is especially true for imperial stout. Because really: The typical brewery’s imperial stout is a pretty tasty thing, and something we’d be happy to drink any Friday night (or Monday morning).
What I did note was that, as expected, the cream of the “best-made” stouts rose to the top, regardless of whether they had various adjuncts. There were coffee stouts, vanilla stouts, coconut stouts, fruited stouts, etc., that all ended up in the field, and plenty of regular old “Russian imperial stouts” that made the ranked portion. I’m a big believer that the best pure beers rise to the top.
The beers below in The Field are listed in alphabetical order, and are thus not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
4 Hands Brewing Co. Bonafide Secret Stash
4 Noses Brewing Laika Boss
18th Street Brewery Hunter
18th Street Brewery Vanilla Hunter
Bent Hill Brewery Imperial Maple Stout
Boneyard Beer Co. Suge Knight
Brewery Vivant Tart Side of the Moon
Bridgeport Brewing Siren’s Sound
Cigar City Vanilla Hazelnut Marshal Zhukov
Clown Shoes Blaecorn Unidragon
Dogfish Head Beer for Breakfast
Duck Rabbit Rabid Duck
Evil Twin Brewing Even More Jesus
Founders Breakfast Stout
Fremont Brewing Dark Star
Frost Beer Works Heavy
Fulton Beer Worthy Adversary
Funky Buddha Brewery, I’m So Excited, I’m So Scared
Funky Buddha Brewery Nikolai Vorlauf
Great Divide Brewing Co. Yeti
Great Lakes Brewing Co. Blackout Stout
Great Notion Brewing Stacks of Coconut
Hoppin’ Frog D.O.R.I.S. the Destroyer
Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB) Motherland
Intuition Ale Works King St. Stout
Iron Hill Russian Imperial Stout
Iron John’s Brewing Co. Black Hearted Mary
Left Hand Brewing Wake Up Dead
North Coast Old Rasputin
Ratio Beerworks Genius Wizard
Real Ale Commissar
Reformation Brewery Declaration
Rhinegeist Brewery Ink
River North Brewery Avarice
River North Brewery Nightmare Fuel
River North Brewery Shadowman
Second Self Beer Co. Old Oyle
Sierra Nevada Narwhal
Silver City Brewery Time Traveler
Sixpoint Bolshoi Imperial Stout
Smog City Brewing Co. The Nothing
Speakeasy Ales & Lagers Scarface Imperial Stout
Spider Bite Beer Co. Boris the Spider
Spiteful Brewing Corporate Party
Starr Hill Brewery Double Bass
Stevens Point Whole Hog Russian Imperial Stout
Stone Give Me Stout Or Give Me Death
Stone Russian Imperial Stout
Swamp Head Brewery Catherine’s Passion Russian Imperial Stout
Tallgrass Brewing Co. King Buffalo
Tallgrass Brewing Co. One Eyed Jacques
Two Brothers Brewing Northwind Imperial Stout
Two Roads Brewing Co. Unorthodox Russian Imperial Stout
Upland Brewing Co. Teddy Bear Kisses
Valiant Brewing Co. Chernyy Medved
Victory Brewing Co. Storm King Stout
WeldWerks Brewing Co. Coffee Coconut Stout
WeldWerks Brewing Co. Mexican Achromatic
WeldWerks Brewing Co. Peanut Butter Cup Achromatic
Weyerbacher Brewing Co. Sunday Mole Stout
Wormtown Brewery Sweet Tats
Wren House Brewing Co. Deuce of Clubs
Next: The ranked beers! Stouts #s 40-21
City: Greeley, CO
The verdict: WeldWerks, who made the top 10 of our 247 IPA blind tasting with their fantastic (and well-named) Juicy Bits, sought to stack the deck in this stout tasting by sending us no fewer than FIVE different beers, all of which were distinct enough to qualify. This “peppermint mocha” offering is easily the most unorthodox, but so help us, it just works. We’ve had a few mint chocolate beers before, but none of them have succeeded in so accurately capturing the heart and soul of a Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie as this one. The chocolate is pleasant without being overbearing or cloying, and the peppermint is unmistakeable but not obnoxious. This is not a style of beer that is ever going to win a huge blind tasting of imperial stouts, if only because it’s so obviously a flavor experiment, but this is just about the best possible version of “mint stout” that we can imagine. You gotta give them some credit for that.
City: Derry, NH
The verdict: Kelsen is a brewery I’ve been wanting to add to our tastings for a while, and it makes sense for now to be the time, given that they’re known for dark beer styles and stouts in particular. This one is made with coffee, but it doesn’t come off quite like most of the other coffee-infused imperial stouts. You get the requisite roast on the nose, but more in a dimension of roasted malt rather than distinctly coffee-like. On the palate, it’s surprisingly nutty, with a pleasant, “roasted chestnuts” or hazelnut note, supported by roast, a bit of bread and moderate residual sweetness. Well balanced and pretty easy drinking, it’s significantly more agreeable than the axe-brandishing Viking on the label.
City: Lakewood, NY
The verdict: This particular bottle of Oat is what you could call “well-aged,” in the sense that it was probably sitting on the package store shelf for quite a while before we picked it up, this particular beer having been discontinued at least a year prior. That age, however, has clearly done it some good, mellowing whatever booze presence there once would have been in this 11% ABV beer and emphasizing its decadent, silky texture instead. There’s some dark fruitiness lurking underneath the hood of this beer, and a rogue note of maple that I hardly expected, but found very pleasant. All in all, though, it feels more like an old school oatmeal stout that has just been supersized, combining a bit of crisp cereal graininess with moderate roast, medium sweetness and a drying finish.
The verdict: Here’s the thing you need to keep in mind about tasting imperial stouts in this format: Even a beer that would normally be explosively flavorful, or bursting with character, is decidedly different when evaluated against a dozen other examples of that style. So when we say that this stout is “reserved” and “balanced,” that’s in comparison to everything else on the table that day, not what the stout would be like if you were comparing it to a Bud Light. That’s how we end up describing a 10.5% ABV imperial stout brewed with molasses and licorice root as “nicely caramelized, with milk chocolate highlights.” It is indeed a bit thinner of body than some of the others, a throwback on some level to old-school American imperial stouts with a distinct hop presence and moderate bitterness that helps keep the sweetness in check. It’s silly to refer to any of these stouts as “drinkable,” but this one certainly is, within the context of the tasting.
City: Portland, OR
The verdict: It’s difficult to rate a beer in the mold of Double Stack, because your enjoyment of it is likely going to be determined entirely by two factors. One: Do you like maple syrup? Two: Is the end result too sweet or cloying, in your mind? Regardless, everything about this maple syrup/coffee stout screams “breakfast”—it smells like a platter of flapjacks, syrup, bold coffee and maybe a side bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Golden Grahams for good measure. The residual sweetness is prominent as you’d expect, and the base beer does get a little bit lost behind all the maple and coffee character, but we had to admit that the final synthesis comes together in a way that is decadent and crowd-pleasing. It stops just short of being too sweet or too gimmicky, and although it’s not a beer you’d likely want to down by the pint, this would be an exceedingly fun crowler to break out at a party. We had a few other maple beers in the tasting, but this one struck us as the most genuine and purest exhibition of what the brewery was trying to achieve.
City: Hammond, IN
The verdict: In this tasting more than ever, we found ourselves reconsidering our preconceptions of what “coffee” can taste like in the context of a beer. This 3rd anniversary brew from Indiana’s 18th Street is an ideal example—a beer that you could sample blind and possibly miss as being “coffee beer,” despite the fact that it’s bursting with coffee notes. How? It’s the nature of the coffee character, which here comes through in a very spicy, peppery, almost chile-like way that we’ve seen in a handful of other coffee beers before. But that’s just one note in what is otherwise a nicely complex, nuanced stout, supported by prominent dark fruit flavors of raspberry or plum and a hit of slightly smoky, deep roast. Also: An impressively well-hidden 12% ABV. This strikes us as a stout that displays a whole lot of skill on the part of the brewers.
City: San Diego, CA
The verdict: Ballast Point’s offering is a bit dryer than most of the other stouts on the table, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t assert itself. Indeed, it’s almost booze-forward despite being dry, which is an unusual (but effective) combination in this case. Leaning less on an intensity of roast and more on fruit-driven flavors, tasting sheets reveal words like “red fruity,” “currant” and “licorice.” Those fruit impressions give it a slightly viniferous character that you find in some of these high-octane stouts, but regardless, it’s not the sort of imperial stout you’re going to mistake as being crammed full of coffee and chocolate. With that said, you do get some pleasant dark, bittersweet cocoa and red fruitiness, supported by enough booze to let you remember what style it is you’re drinking.
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: Sometimes, you just want to drink an iced coffee with plenty of sugar, and that’s this stout from Hi-Wire. Taking advantage of the low end of the imperial stout ABV range, it combines fresh coffee, dark chocolate and vanilla bean to form something that is clearly meant to approximate a mocha from your corner coffee shop … perhaps with a shot of vanilla syrup, to boot. Understandably, it’s on the sweeter side of the spectrum, but ultimately it’s right in our comfort zone—moderate residual sweetness without being syrupy or saccharine. Cocoa is the background player here, while coffee is the star—there’s a very nice, firm, fresh coffee character that is made all the more decadent by the touch of vanilla. Final impression: It’s not QUITE a beer that you would have as dessert, but it would be spectacular accompaniment to your dessert.
City: Tulsa, OK
The verdict: BOMB! is kind of an amazing beer for how deftly and subtly it uses all of its adjuncts. It’s an imperial stout with coffee, cacao nib, vanilla beans and ancho chiles, but unlike so many of the others they’re very much supporting players to the big, thick, velvety imperial stout underneath. Its flavors are complex and anything but obvious, especially in a blind format, but the first impression one gets is textural: Big, thick, viscous and palate-coating. Dark fruitiness is a major player, something along the line of stewed plums/black cherry, with a bit of smoke and substantial roast to back it up. The coffee in particular is really working in the background on this one compared to some of the really bombastic coffee stouts, while the chiles contribute more in the way of fruitiness than they do overt spice or heat. That’s something to look for, in stouts that feature dried chiles in particular—they often contribute dark and dried fruit notes, which are this beer’s signature.
City: Columbus, OH
The verdict: With all of the attention paid to stouts with coffee, chocolate, chiles, etc., it’s a little easy to forget that one of the old school ways to set off an imperial stout is with American hops. That’s not to say that Oubliette is strongly pronounced in its hop rate, but the slight herbal and pine flavors they contribute here, and a firm background of bitterness, does work to set it apart from many of the other stouts on the table. It’s otherwise a very well-balanced, classic imperial stout profile that is less dark fruity than the last few and more driven by solid roast, coffee-like flavors, light caramel and dark chocolate notes. It deftly pulls off the feat of having a pleasantly smooth, creamy mouthfeel with actually being a tad lighter of body than most of the other stouts in the 12% ABV range, and hides its booze impressively. All around impressive, in terms of balance.
City: Athens, GA
The verdict: Given that Terrapin is just down the highway from Paste’s home in Atlanta, we’ve known most of their beers for a long time, and we’ve slowly come to a conclusion: Dark beer is not-so-secretly where this brewery excels. Moo-Hoo is already one of the best milk stouts around, but the addition of coffee and chocolate takes this one to the next level. Its flavors are very much in your face, especially for its stature—both in assertiveness and mouthfeel, it feels like a much bigger beer than 8.5% ABV. The coffee character is very dark, intense and lightly smoky, like a Vienna or French roast, while the lactose provides a very creamy, velvety texture. Chocolate is also present in a big way, very rich and “fudgy,” with pronounced residual sweetness. The end product actually has quite a bit in common with the Hi-Wire 10W-40 above, but of the two we’d say that Moo-HooChiato is a bit more bombastic (in a good way), reveling in its cocoa impressions in particular. This isn’t the kind of beer you call “sophisticated,” it’s just guilty pleasure stuff of the best sort.
City: San Marcos, CA
The verdict: This beer has been around for a good while now, and it’s time we recognize Serpent’s Stout as a classic example of the genre. Tasters here were impressed by the depth of roast, an area of stout that we sometimes tend to think of as one-dimensional. This roast character is a little smoky, almost “ashy” or like that of charred oak, which contributes bitterness but then segues into deep caramelization and molasses-like sweetness. Not done yet, it then moves into raspberry-like dark fruit. Excellent balance overall, and heavy on the roast, it’s very close to my personal concept of the platonic ideal in imperial stout flavor profiles.
City: Lyons, CO
The verdict: Good old Ten FIDY—it’s as dependably great an imperial stout as there is on the market, and we like it every time we taste it. In terms of flavor profile it’s really rather similar to the beer that precedes it, as both are excellent examples of how American brewers took “Russian imperial stout” and defined it for the modern craft beer palate. Big and thick of body, it’s a little less distinctly roasty than the preceding Serpent’s Stout, and instead just a bit more in balance with its fruity and lighter roast notes—think light roasted coffee, roasted nuts and perhaps a bit of toffee as well, with a small dose of hop-derived bitterness. It’s an excellent beer to use as a measuring stick or definition for the style in a competition or blind tasting setting, because it checks all of the different boxes: Roast, fruit, caramelization, hops. We look forward to seeing how multiple barrel aged versions of this beer do in next month’s blind tasting of barrel aged stouts.
City: Athens, GA
The verdict: Did you know this beer was once called “Terrapin Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout”? I sure as hell didn’t, but thank god they eventually changed the name, because “Wake ‘n Bake” is immeasurably better. It has a reputation as a classic coffee stout that is heavy on the adjunct flavors, but we actually found it considerably more subtle than many of the other coffee-infused stouts in this particular tasting. Indeed, the coffee character blends well with the native roast in a seamless sort of way, where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Perhaps more impressive is the distinct note of dark chocolate present throughout, for a beer made without baker’s chocolate or cocoa nib additions. There’s even a slight hint of pine/herbal hops that become apparent on repeat visits. For a beer that purports to be a delivery vessel for coffee, there’s quite a lot going on under the surface in Wake ‘n Bake, which we can certainly appreciate.
City: Salisbury, MD
The verdict: We quite liked the regular Rise Up coffee stout from Evolution back in the fall of 2015, when we blind-tasted American stouts under 8% ABV, so we’re not surprised to find ourselves enjoying its bigger brother as well. This imperial version packs a peppery, spicy coffee character that bears a passing resemblance to the 18th Street Twisted Engagement, but slightly less intense. Coffee is still the dominant impression both on the nose and the palate, followed up by bittersweet dark chocolate and just a tad of brown sugar sweetness to offset all that roast. Alcohol is fully hidden; it could certainly pass for a “non-imperial” stout if it wanted to. This is not the most explosive beer in the lineup, but it’s very well-balanced and a treat for the coffee beer fanatics.
City: Kalamazoo, MI
The verdict: This beer has been around forever, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that is perfect for hoarding in your cellar and setting up a 5 or even 10-year vertical, thanks to its general availability and aging potential. It’s a stout that feels big on the palate, enveloping it and earning adjectives like “burly” on tasting sheets. Heavy on the roast, and perhaps just a little bit “burnt,” it counters with a slight hop presence and balancing caramel/molasses sweetness, and dried fruit like raisin/prune. Wonderfully complex, it packs a mouthfeel that you would probably peg as even bigger/thicker than the 10.5% ABV. It’s a stout that you can set your watch by; dependable every single year.
City: Akron, OH
The verdict: Hoppin’ Frog celebrated the raising of Ohio’s beer ABV limit this year with the first ever brewing of T.O.R.I.S., the “triple” stout sequel to their classic B.O.R.I.S. and D.O.R.I.S. imperial stouts. And it’s big, big, big. From the first line of one score sheet: “Absolutely massive booze and roast, super viscous and pitch black.” This is one dense stout, a concrete wall of booze and flavor. Cocoa powder and French roast coffee make way for a tidal wave of alcohol, which brings dark fruity flavors of black cherry to the forefront. To quote another score sheet: “Perfect snow day beer,” presumably because if you drank a bottle of this stuff before going out in the cold, you’d be incapable of feeling much of anything. The only criticisms came from tasters who felt the booze threw the final beer too far out of balance, but that’s to be expected. This one is not for the faint of heart.
City: Grand Rapids, MI
The verdict: Founders Imperial Stout is a bit oddly positioned, in the sense that it’s always sort of been in the shadows behind the more commonly sighted (and praised) Breakfast Stout, but it may actually be the superior example of “imperial stout” between the two. Capped with some brown foam that was a shade or two darker than most of the other big beers on the table, it seems to suggest decadence, which it does … in moderation. It has the body of a giant stout, but it tempers its size with balance: Fudgy, almost brownie-like chocolate is balanced out by firm, drying roast and lingering red fruitiness. The chocolate note in particular is the key flavor of this beer, and it works in a beautifully natural, organic way. One score sheet also notes another flavor of interest: “Toasty as chestnuts over an open fire.” We’d wager that it warmed that particular fellow’s heart.
City: Ipswich, MA
The verdict: There’s a couple of things that Clown Shoes does really well: Big IPAs and big stouts, and it shows whenever we do blind tastings. This one I’ve always liked in particular, a bit of a sleeper pick compared to several of the brewery’s many barrel aged monstrosities that are even bigger and more over the top. Made with a small amount of ash-smoked malt, it doesn’t lean hard on “smoke” as a flavor driver, relegating it to simply one note among many in the background. Coffee is pronounced, enough that you might mistake it for an actual coffee stout, along with dark chocolate and just enough residual sweetness to inject some levity into the proceedings. This is the type of imperial stout that likely appeals to just about everyone, and it also happens to be one that drinks frighteningly easily. It’s all too easy to handle a bomber of Undead Party Crasher on your own.
City: Coronado, CA
The verdict: Odd name, but good beer. It’s probably vindicating to our taste buds on some level that this beer is again very similar to the one that precedes it, the Clown Shoes Undead Party Crasher. Both of them are unadulterated with adjuncts, but feature great roast character (particularly coffee). Both have a touch of smokiness, and more than a little dark cocoa, with a sophisticated hint of residual sweetness, and weigh in at 10% ABV. The one disparate flavor note here is hops, which are very mild but noticeable, contributing a mild earthiness and perhaps just the smallest bit of citrus. Like the Clown Shoes, it’s very, very drinkable for the ABV—an imperial stout for a weekend afternoon and a football game.
Next: The top of the mountain! Stouts #s 20-1
City: San Diego, CA
The verdict: Another classic of the genre—who has ever had Speedway Stout and not enjoyed it? This is one that definitely earns its 12% ABV, because there’s no missing that it’s a big beer. The mouthfeel is thick as a milkshake, which combines with a very rich, almost syrupy quality of residual sweetness to make a beer that is halfway to porto digestif. Coffee is distinctive but not declarative, and it doesn’t ever threaten to dominate the proceedings. Because of the residual sweetness and thick, silky texture, this is a stout that comes off as decadent, the kind of stout that you would believe was barrel aged if someone handed it to you with that descriptor. It’s a collection of flavors that is a little bit of everything, but you’re never disappointed at dropping a few bucks for a 750 ml bottle of this stuff. It’s been a great beer for 15 years or more at this point.
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: This sought-after beer from Perennial Artisan Ales revels in the whole “Mexican hot chocolate”/mole flavor profile that has become popular for imperial stouts in recent years, and is regularly considered one of the best of that subset. I say “revels” because there’s nothing subtle about the spicing of this beer; its cinnamon in particular is big, fragrant, sweet and in your face, making the beer smell like a brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tart that is fresh from the toaster. Rich dark chocolate is present in equal measure, and the chiles slowly come through on repeated sips with a final, lingering touch of (very mild) heat. When this beer was first released in 2011, it may have been a complete novelty to drinkers trying it for the first time, but a glance through this tasting will show that there are many other stouts in the same mold. What ultimately ended up setting Abraxas apart this time wasn’t necessarily the spice-heavy flavor profile, but the wonderfully silky mouthfeel and full body that amplify the sense of decadence in drinking it. Abraxas remains exemplary dessert beer; pair with vanilla ice cream or freshly fried churros.
City: Marshall, MI
The verdict: Michiganders know that Dark Horse can make some great stouts, even if the rest of the country may not be fully aware of it. This yearly release, which we’ll also be featuring in the barrel aged tasting next month, layers the roast on assertively in the aroma, with a deep, ashy sort of char like the embers of a wood fire. Strong coffee character is present on the palate, with a kiss of chocolate-driven sweetness (both dark and milk chocolate) and enough hop presence to be worth noting. Very creamy in terms of mouthfeel, it’s like very dark, very strong, lightly sweetened espresso. It’s an excellent model of American-made “Russian imperial stout.”
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: Sometimes a beer is just “fun,” and that’s what Milk & Cookies is all about. At 8.5% ABV, it’s just over the necessary ABV to jump from a “stout tasting” into an imperial stout tasting, but it’s not supposed to be a beer that is kicking down doors and holding your taste buds hostage. Some tasters noted that it seemed like a beer left over from our previous blind tasting of 104 Christmas/winter beers, likely because of the cinnamon. Unlike some of the other cinnamon-laden beers, though, this isn’t one with chocolate or chile additions—instead, it features vanilla, golden raisins and lactose. The result is playful and easygoing; a creamy and moderately sweet stout that evokes Grandma’s kitchen and fresh-baked oatmeal raisin cookies with cinnamon—or raisin-ed snickerdoodles? Is that a thing? Regardless, it’s not the kind of beer you’re meant to overanalyze. It’s the liquid equivalent of winter evening comfort food, a purpose that it perfectly serves.
City: Vernal, UT
The verdict: I swear, I’m not purposely placing these similar beers next to each other in the rankings, it’s just a weird string of coincidences. And in reality, this one isn’t terribly similar to Milk & Cookies, despite being another milk stout with the same 8.5% ABV. It features the prominent, creamy texture that you would expect, and a nice balance of roast and moderate-to-high residual sweetness, along with some toffee-like caramelization. The most unexpected aspect is the fruitiness that follows, however, an impression that is perhaps amplified by the beer’s sweetness. For whatever reason, some tasters got an almost “jammy” type of fruitiness from this beer, citing either cherry or strawberry notes. We may be completely off-base on this one, but whatever it is, we enjoyed it. I believe this is the first appearance of Vernal Brewing Co. in these tastings, and we hope we’ll be seeing more from the Utah brewery in the future.
City: Brooklyn, NY
The verdict: Evil Twin’s Even More Jesus gets more mentions, but in this tasting we ended up gravitating toward the vanilla-infused Soft DK instead. Unlike many stouts making use of vanilla bean, it’s pleasantly reserved in how it presents that flavor; subtly rather than trumpeting it to the heavens. The roast here has an almost woody or oaky quality, which intermingles with an undercurrent of dark fruitiness to produce something that is slightly vinous and unusual. Other tasting sheets praise the soft mouthfeel of the stout, but it seems like this is one where each taster was picking up significantly different elements, while still enjoying the beer for disparate reasons. Regardless, it works for us.
City: San Diego, CA
The verdict: Societe proudly notes on the bottle for The Butcher that this stout doesn’t need any stinkin’ coffee or chocolate additions to be great, and damn it, they turned out to be right. It’s an interesting profile that strongly plays up the roast and especially the chocolate character, with moderate residual sweetness, but without significant alcohol presence or the dark fruitiness that usually comes with it. You might say that limits the overall palette of flavors it’s working with, but The Butcher instead just paints with a variety of roasted malt and chocolate hues. It’s fairly approachable, with moderate viscosity that seems just about right for the ABV, but a crowd-pleasing malt profile that you just want to dissect and linger over. It’s an imperial stout you could probably drink by the pint, or the 20 oz glass, if only that wasn’t a terrible idea.
City: Greeley, CO
The verdict: Here’s the thing about coffee stouts: There’s definitely such a thing as “too much coffee.” We know this to be true, and we experienced it a couple of times in this tasting—ridiculously roasty, obscene amounts of coffee that just totally overpowered several beers that otherwise could have been really interesting. Mocha Achromatic from WeldWerks comes dangerously close to that threshold, but stops just before it gets there—it’s the biggest pure amount of coffee flavor present in any of the beers to make the ranked portion of this list, and it’s not really close. So in other words: You better love coffee and roast, if you’re seeking this one out. Smoky, oily and exploding out of the glass with espresso-like aromatics, it backs up the coffee with dark, bittersweet chocolate and subtle hints of currant-like dark fruit, but you’re always going to be inexorably drawn back to the bean. How caffeinated is this beer, we wonder? It should be served in cafes out of tiny espresso cups, served with a dab of whipped cream.
City: Akron, OH
The verdict: Hoppin’ Frog is one of those breweries that has been making great imperial stouts for a long, long time, without ever quite getting the recognition they deserve. In this tasting, they sent us the two stronger variants—D.O.R.I.S. and the new T.O.R.I.S.—but also three different versions of the original B.O.R.I.S., which includes “Reserve” and “Grand Reserve.” Here I had to disqualify a couple, given that all three versions are essentially the “same beer” recipe, except made with more expensive specialty malts for the reserve versions. Feeling that we should probably use the most sought-after version to represent B.O.R.I.S., I chose the Grand Reserve, and judging from its ranking I probably made the right choice. One immediately notes the foam, which is extremely dark brown for whatever reason, and makes the beer distinctive in the glass. The beer is wonderfully complex and full of subtleties: More nutty, caramelized and genuinely “malty” rather than overtly roast heavy, and with a lingering dark fruitiness. This is a lower pure volume of flavor than many of the other beers on the table, but all of the tasters were taken with its subtle approach and balance. Sometimes, refinement can help you stand out just as much as bombast.
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: When we were doing this back in 2015 with only 37 beers, this same brew from Spiteful placed at #4—it is the real deal, folks. Another stout in the Mexican hot chocolate/mole subset, the obvious comparison is Perennial Artisan Ales Abraxas. Next to that beer (although they weren’t in the same day of tasting together), Malevolence strikes us slightly less cinnamon dominant, although it’s still a primary player. Mouthfeel is thick and viscous, with moderate residual sweetness and both dark and milk chocolate flavors. Slightly less sweet overall than the Abraxas, and a bit thinner of body, it gets some interesting character out of the blend of chiles incorporated into the beer, a prickling peppery spice and flavors of raisin/prune. It’s still firmly in the category of “dessert beer,” and a damn good one at that. If Mexican stouts are your thing, it’s one you should be adding to your list.
City: Munster, IN
The verdict: Welcome to the moment when we wondered “Oops, did we accidentally let a black IPA into this imperial stout tasting?” Turns out the answer is “No, it’s just Three Floyds.” Aha! Makes sense. This stout was truly unique among the 102 beers in this tasting. Yes, we had a few of them with significant hop presence, but we didn’t have a single other beer that used them in such an effective way as this one. You stick your nose in the glass and the last thing you’re expecting is the wave of resinous, piney, grassy and citric hops that roll out, but so help me it just works beautifully. There’s a light, ashy roast complementing the hops here, and a beer that is significantly thinner of body than you might expect for 10.4%, which is probably a good thing. Hop-derived bitterness is on the high side, which only enhances the perception that they could probably market this beer as a really excellent imperial black IPA. Still, it drinks on the easier side compared to many of the other, burlier imperial stouts in this blind tasting, which works quite well with the hop profile. When going into this tasting, the last thing I would have expected would be for a really hop-forward stout to end up in the top 10, but Blot Out the Sun changed my mind quite effectively.
City: Ipswich, MA
The verdict: I’ve read some accounts of this beer that make it sound like a total smoke bomb, but we honestly didn’t find the smoked character to be oppressive or even all that pervasive when tasting blind. It tastes big, but not necessarily 14% ABV big, with very well-hidden booziness that makes us wonder if perhaps this bottle had some significant age on it. Regardless, this wonderfully named beer presents some dynamite chocolate flavors in particular, beginning with a sweet, milky chocolate that morphs into something far darker and bittersweet. Deep, toffee-like caramelization adds richness and gives way to smoky char that lingers for quite a while. There are a few tasters present at Paste tastings who occasionally have a hard time with smoked beers, so the success of this one speaks volumes for the skill of the people at Clown Shoes. They really dial in their stouts quite well.
City: Birmingham, AL
The verdict: Our #1 non-barrel aged imperial stout back in 2015, El Gordo once again rises to the top of the pile in a much bigger tasting. Falling on what ended up likely being the strongest overall day of the tasting, it blew tasters away with its big flavors and wonderful texture. Viscous, creamy and positively silky, it pours with the consistency of motor oil. Molasses-like sweetness, vanilla and raisiny dried fruit are present, although the fruitiness isn’t quite as in your face as in the equally burly Hoppin’ Frog T.O.R.I.S., which was on the table at the same time. Roast, meanwhile, is obviously present but moderate and tactful, not quite as pronounced as in a few of the other stouts in this weight class. Rather, El Gordo struck us as very well balanced this time around, likely because the lineup has grown so much bigger and wilder than it was in 2015. Of course the bigger your stout becomes, the harder it is to find true balance, so this is something that should be celebrated. Suffice to say, we’re thrilled that there will also be several barrel aged versions of El Gordo in next month’s tasting.
City: Placentia, CA
The verdict: When you’re blind tasting, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “more assertive = better,” every single time. It’s a defensive mechanism of writers, because we’re often risking our own reputations as tasters in choosing and defending beers when tasting blind, so tasters tend to rate strong flavors more highly almost by default. This beer from The Bruery, meanwhile, flies in the face of that logic. Unlike some of the other mole-style stouts on this list, it doesn’t lean hard onto cinnamon as the first, primary flavor note you’re getting on the nose or the palate. In fact, you sort of have to search that cinnamon note out, because it’s merely a supporting player in what is already a rich, creamy, well-made stout. Rather, this is one mole beer that seemingly sets out to make the chiles more the center of attention, incorporating a peppery spice and slight vegetal note without significant heat on the palate. It’s a beer that rewards careful tasting and repeated sips with new dimensions of light cocoa nuttiness and vanilla, and a slowly building chile spice. We very much admire the craftsmanship at work here, taking a subset of stout that is often desserty and trying to make something less decadent and more contemplative out of it.
City: Long Beach, CA
The verdict: Whereas I spent pretty much the entire last entry philosophizing on the pleasures of complexity, Beachwood’s Tovarish “espresso stout” is much more simple: It’s just a great damn coffee stout, period. On a base of bready British base malt, and with a touch of blackstrap molasses for richness, it layers on one of the best overall profiles of coffee flavor that we sampled in this tasting. There’s some dry-ish cocoa to this espresso blend, and a hint of spiciness, but overall it’s all about balance. In fact, one of the tasting sheets actually uses the phrase “platonic ideal” in describing the coffee character. On the drier side compared to some of the others, with a little time and warmth its innate richness and a touch of residual sweetness comes to the forefront. It’s an almost perfect expression of “coffee stout.”
City: Avondale Estates, GA
The verdict: Disclaimer: Wild Heaven’s owner was present for these tastings, but we never use his ratings for his own beers, for obvious reasons. What we have here is a very unique, outsider’s imperial stout—massively thick, rich, viscous and boozy, but with a twist. The brewery takes that base beer, and to it they add smoked cocoa nibs and raspberries. The end result is subtle, complex and utterly unique, even in the context of a tasting of this size. The base beer is quite formidable, awash in vinous character, nutty cocoa and booze. Taking the light smoke note with the nuttiness of the cocoa nibs and the plethora of dark fruit impressions, you might almost come to the conclusion that the beer had utilized ancho chiles or another dried, dark pepper variety. As the beer warms, though, the fresher, jammier berry notes introduced by the raspberry become increasingly assertive, and it slowly becomes clear that the stout you’re drinking is also fruited. The end result is a bit like chocolate-covered raspberries, soaked in brandy. That’s some heady stuff.
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: Perennial sent us both their regular Sump imperial coffee stout and this variant, but I elected to only include one of the two in the tasting, or else we’d have to accept the same beers repeatedly with different coffee varietals. Once again, as with the Hoppin’ Frog beers it seems to have worked out just fine, because this stuff is awesome. It’s significantly more subtle than most of the other coffee beers in this particular tasting, with a lighter degree of roast and some curious herbal/spicy/grassy notes that might be derived either via coffee or hops. In actuality, it’s some very nice chocolate flavors that are in the driver’s seat of this beer, a blend of creamy, milky, sweetened cocoa and something more fudgy or brownie-like. Every taster complimented the creamy mouthfeel of this one, while one wrote “checks all the boxes” and then penciled in a tiny illustration of boxes being checked. To quote another: “Lovely mouthfeel, subtle coffee and expressive cocoa. So nice.”
City: Mount Pleasant, SC
The verdict: The most impressive thing about this beer from Westbrook is its restraint. This is a stout with cocoa nibs, roasted hazelnuts and vanilla bean—seemingly born and raised to be a gimmicky, Nutella-esque dessert beer—and yet we’d hesitate to call it that. We will say that it punches way above its weight class in terms of flavor and especially texture—in this entire tasting, this is the beer we were most shocked to reveal and see something that was “only” 10% ABV, rather than 15 or 16. And that’s not even to say this beer is “sweet.” Rather, its light nuttiness, roast, vanilla and fudgy cocoa are carefully, tactfully integrated into a stout that texturally feels like it’s the size of a battleship. To quote one score sheet: “Thick as motor oil, holy moly.” To quote another: “Big, lovely, almost port wine-like.” It manages to achieve making something decadent without being anywhere close to cloying. This is masterfully made.
City: Minneapolis, MN
The verdict: This one is no particular surprise, as Darkness has consistently been considered one of the best non-barrel aged stouts in the country over the years, but we imagine that Surly will enjoy the feather in their cap all the same. Burly and rich, but balanced, Darkness is a synthesis of everything that craft beer geeks tend to like about this style: Roast, cocoa, dark fruitiness, dried fruitiness, and of course booze. A silky, creamy mouthfeel gives way to prominent cocoa flavors, what one tasting sheet referred to as “German chocolate cake,” sans coconut. Booziness is considerable, but not overwhelming—rather, it’s one of those beers that rolls down your throat and begins warming your chest. Like the Westbrook that precedes it, Darkness also feels like it could reasonably be a few ABV points bigger than it actually is, which is likely a testimony to how well the brewers know their craft. Dried fruit impressions of raisin and perhaps fig are a signature note here, but the whole of the beer is more than the sum of its parts.
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: Way back in the summer of 2014, I visited a young brewery in Denver called River North while spending five days drinking my way up and down the breweries of the front range. Although they’re now housed in a different building, I noted then that they could make a good stout. Now, they’ve made our #1 non-barrel aged imperial stout.
River North sent in no fewer than four stouts for this tasting, all of which were interesting in some way. Mr. Sandman is the closest to a “standard” imperial stout, being the same base beer used in their coffee variant, Nightmare Fuel. The latter was also included, and proved divisive in the blind tasting because there was just so much coffee in it. In a tasting of 102 imperial stouts, River North undoubtedly, easily, without question made the beer with the most insane amount of coffee character, and that beer still didn’t make the top 40 because frankly, some of the tasters just couldn’t deal with such an overwhelming surge of java.
The version without coffee, though, was a revelation—one of those rare beers that comes along and no one at the table has anything negative to say about it. It excels not by being specifically unique but by assembling a pitch-perfect composite of all the flavors you want in a big, motor oil imperial stout. Dark fruit flavors of raspberry and cherry intermingle gently with dark, bittersweet baker’s chocolate. Sturdy roast provides a drying counterpart to molasses-like caramelization. Booze—there’s definitely booze, no doubt about that. And like so many of the other great stouts, the x-factor is textural, as Mr. Sandman perfectly balances a decadently creamy mouthfeel with surprising, dangerous drinkability. You could nurse one of these all night, or you could just as likely consume it all too quickly. That’s what being a great imperial stout is all about.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer guru and blind tasting czar. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks coverage.