Let’s Talk Beer Styles: Russian Imperial Stout

Drink Features Imperial stout
Let’s Talk Beer Styles: Russian Imperial Stout

“Let’s Talk Beer Styles” is a monthly feature that accompanies Paste’s large-scale blind craft beer style tastings/rankings. The first month covered the history and modern role of American pale ale, and the next few subsequently tackled everything from Black IPA to classical pilsner to American IPA. The latest covers non-barrel aged imperial stout, of which we just blind-tasted a whopping 102 examples.

Every time I begin work on one of these “Let’s Talk Beer Styles” pieces as a companion to one of our blind style tastings, I do so with a deep breath and the acknowledgement that I’m about to go diving into a sea of dubious history. Put as simply as possible, there is just a ton of misinformation out there regarding the history of many classic beer styles, and much of it is very hard to dislodge, once it enters the public consciousness. It’s not that the misinformation has been inserted into the narrative for any kind of malicious reason—instead, the incorrect information typically serves a comfortable, easily digestible narrative. This should never be surprising to us: We, as a species, like our stories neat, tidy and easily repeatable. Complexity just serves to muck things up.

Such it is with styles such as IPA, and again I found the same phenomenon with imperial stout/Russian imperial stout. The “Russia” connection in particular has been the subject of mythologizing over the course of hundreds of years, with information that began as marketing/advertising copy from breweries eventually finding its way into textbooks and historical records. I can’t claim to offer a perfect history here, but I’m going to at least try and base it on writers who have done their historical research and consulted actual, primary sources. And if you really care about beer, I certainly encourage you to took for sourcing, when reading this sort of thing.

Anyway. Imperial stout … that heady, roasty nectar of the gods. I remember a time, when I was first getting into craft beer around 2007, that “Russian imperial stout” was likely the end-all, be-all style of American craft brewing. At that time, most of those beers were what we would think of today as “standard” imperial stouts: Few adjuncts such as coffee or cocoa nibs, and even fewer that were fruited, soured or otherwise flavored. Barrel-aged stouts were a mystical rarity that only the most intense beer geeks had sampled from breweries such as Goose Island or Founders. It was the age of “imperializing” and “extreme beer,” when many craft beer converts and upstart breweries were pushing ABV boundaries in search of the biggest, brashest flavors possible. It only makes sense that imperial stout was their vehicle.

Today, the market has matured substantially. The phrase “imperial stout” has broadened significantly, and now may conjure the idea of a template to beer geeks: A beer style that is a blank canvas for experimentation. The American beer market takes imperial stouts and does everything imaginable to them, and in doing so they’ve somewhat decreased the style’s reputation as the King of Craft Beer. In 2017, you’re just as likely to find highly rated sours up near the tops of online beer rankings as you are a barrel-aged stout. Non-barrel-aged imperial stouts, meanwhile, have slipped way down the rankings. Look no further than the base version of Three Floyds Dark Lord, which went from #2 overall on Beer Advocate to not even appearing in the top 250 in 2017. Times change, folks.

So let’s get into it: The history and modern role of (non-barrel aged) imperial stout, and some versions that are absolutely essential. Keep in mind that we just blind-tasted 102 of these things; you can see the full ranking here.

The Origin of Imperial Stout

Once again, let me affirm: This is the best version of the historically accurate record that I can compile from combining a few sources.

It is known that the word “porter” was first used in 1721 to describe the dark beers that were coming into vogue in London at the time. The strongest versions of those dark brown beers were the first to bear the term “stout porter,” the word “stout” previously having been used to describe strong versions of various beers—“stout ale” and etc. The association between “stout” and these stronger dark ales presumably developed naturally, over time.

Here, we get a bit of misinformation from manufacturers, who have spun a tale about Peter the Great, the Russian Tsar who traveled to England in 1689 and was said to have fallen in love with strong British porter. Obviously, this is problematic, given that the style didn’t truly exist for another 30-plus years, but despite this, Peter the Great likely did have some influence here, as his modernization of the Russian economy allowed for the importation of British goods, which included beer.

As in the misinformation surrounding IPA, there are a lot of stories that the imperial stouts then arose due to the “need for a product that would not spoil on the long journey,” but these are more or less rubbish, given that standard British porter was making even longer journeys to the American colonies and to India at the same time, and doing so just fine. What’s more likely is that the Tsarist court, with money to spend, simply developed a taste for the stronger (and thus more expensive) stout porters. And if there’s a demand, then obviously production will follow to meet it.

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The first true “Russian imperial stouts,” then, are attributed to the Anchor Brewery of Southwark, London, established all the way back in 1616 and operated for centuries thereafter, with many changes of ownership. In 1729, the brewery was purchased by one Ralph Thrale, and was known as Thrale’s Anchor Brewery, and this likely seems to be the cradle of the first “Russian imperial stout.” The product became significantly more famous, however, after the Anchor Brewery was purchased from Thrale’s widow by Barclay Perkins & Co. in 1781. By this point, the taste of the Russian court (and ruler Catherine the Great) for the drink had been documented. From the History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Saviour, Southwark:

The reputation and enjoyment of Porter is by no means confined to England. As proof of the truth of this assertion, this house exports annually very large quantities; so far extended are its commercial connections that Thrale’s Intire is well known, as a delicious beverage, from the frozen regions of Russia to the burning sands of Bengal and Sumatra. The Empress of All Russia is indeed so partial to Porter that she has ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking and that of her court. It refreshes the brave soldiers who are fighting the battles of their country in Germany and animates with new ardour and activity the colonists of Sierra Leone and Botany Bay It is not only evident from the exportation of other articles but likewise from the quantity of Porter sent abroad that Thrale’s Intire extends the reputation of British produce to the most remote quarters of the Globe.

La dee dah, THE EMPRESS OF ALL RUSSIA, guys. Clearly, they were pretty proud of being able to call Catherine a customer. Barclay Perkins Co. continued manufacturing the beer until 1955, when they merged with the nearby Courage Brewery. After that, production of the “original” stout continued as the classic Courage Imperial Russian Stout until 1993, when it was retired. Most recently, it was revived again under the Courage name by Wells and Young, which brings us all the way to modernity.

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I should also mention that at the same time, Russian imperial stout is also likely the progenitor of Baltic porter as a recognizable beer style. Strong porter/stout was by no means being exported solely to Russia, after all—by the 1700s and 1800s, this was worldwide brewing enterprise. Baltic porters therefore arose as brewers in northern Europe and Baltic countries attempted to replicate those strong dark beers. The fact that many of them are traditionally strong, dark LAGERS (it’s surprising how many beer geeks still don’t understand this) would presumably be attributed to the cold weather environs where those beers were being brewed—more cold months per year means more use of cool-fermenting lager yeast. It’s just common sense.

The Role of Imperial Stout in American Craft Beer

Like any other U.K. beer style, “stout” and imperial stout came to the U.S. with European immigrants, and was more or less annihilated by Prohibition, surviving only in small pockets, and of course via the omnipresence of Guinness. “Imperial” stouts were significantly more rare during the initial 1980s/1990s microbrewery boom, and largely slotted into the role of “winter seasonal” before they began to personify the ethos of the “extreme beer” era of the 2000s. Or in other words, it took the beer market a little while to adapt to the intense flavors they offered. It’s really quite difficult to track down details online regarding when more imperial stouts first began to appear, but the likes of North Coast’s Old Rasputin was winning awards by the mid-‘90s, and others from the same period such as Victory Brewing Co. Storm King Stout are still around and well-liked today.

victory storm king inset.jpg

There’s no doubt, however, that a major player in the elevation of the style’s profile was the arrival of Dark Lord, from Three Floyds Brewing Co. in Munster, IN. First brewed in 2002, and first bottled in 2004, this burly, 15% ABV monster stout completely redefined the relationship between hype, beer availability and demand, setting all kinds of precedents along the way. For this reason, it might very well be reasonable to call Dark Lord the single most influential craft beer of the 2000s, in the way that the response to it shaped the entire industry and the method by which breweries release “whales.” It was, in effect, the first whale, the paterfamilias of the one-day beer release festival. Without the specter of Dark Lord Day, for good or for ill, we likely wouldn’t have gotten Hunahpu’s Day or any of the others that followed. You simply can’t overlook how it affected the way in which special, limited releases are distributed, and the relative “value” of a 22 oz or 750 ml bottle of rare beer. Dark Lord Day normalized the concept of standing in line to get that special bottle of beer, and the culture that grew up around it.

In the years that have followed, imperial stout has been all over the map in U.S. brewing. Of course it has been the classic canvas for barrel-aging, but I don’t really intend to go into that here—I’ll save it for when we blind taste barrel-aged imperial stouts in February. Rather, allow me to simply note some of the ways the style has come along as it reached its current definition.

The “Russian” portion of the title has largely become ornamental and meaningless. I find it odd that a site like Beer Advocate for some reason still has two separate beer styles for “Russian imperial stout” and “American double/imperial stout.” Perhaps you could claim that the latter implies a higher hop rate, but current U.S. breweries certainly don’t hold to any kind of definition. They brew the beer they want, and label it whatever they choose. Ultimately, there’s only one “imperial stout.”

Adjuncts have become so common in imperial stout that the concept of a non-adjunct stout, with only malt, seems almost quaint. The addition of coffee is of course extremely common, as are cocoa nibs or alternate methods of infusing chocolate flavor. There are imperial milk stouts, fruited imperial stouts, Mexican hot chocolate-inspired stouts making use of dried chiles, and even the occasional “sour stout.” There are hop-forward examples that blur the line between “stout” and “imperial black IPA,” and artificially flavored monstrosities that come off like diabetes in a bottle. Never has the simple phrase “imperial stout” on a label told you so little about the actual flavor profile of the beer.

Imperial stouts have become a fixture of the American craft beer scene that are expected to be present all year round. Not every brewery can release its own bourbon barrel stout in December or January, for risk of complete oversaturation. These days, those beers are almost just as likely to arrive in August as they are in February.

From my point of view as a craft beer geek who is now about 10 years in the making, the concept of imperial stout feels considerably more normalized in 2017 than it was in say, 2007. It has become a beer style that even neophytes to craft beer no longer find intimidating in the same way that they might find a puckering sour or lambic. In a word, imperial stout has become more approachable over time, at least outside the world of barrel aging.

Three Essential Imperial Stouts You Need to Try

North Coast Old Rasputin

This is probably the first imperial stout that many nascent craft beer geeks sampled when they began exploring beer styles in the ‘90s and 2000s, and as such it’s one of the more influential entries in the history of the style. It’s also a good example of the evolution of “Russian imperial stout” from U.S. breweries, as it represents a somewhat older interpretation of the style. Compared to modern imperial stouts, its ABV may be a touch lower at 9%, but it’s still readily apparent. It’s on the drier side than many current imperial stouts, thinner of body, and also features a touch more hop-derived bitterness. Roasty flavors are the cornerstone, supported by notes of dark fruitiness and berry that are enhanced by fairly overt booziness. Herbal hops become a bit more apparent on repeated sips, and one can’t help but reflect on the fact that hoppiness in general has seemingly fallen out of favor in American-made imperial stouts over time. Regardless, this beer is still a template. It’s the go-to definition that many breweries would have pointed to over the last few decades to demonstrate Russian imperial stout.

Founders Breakfast Stout

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What Old Rasputin is to “Russian imperial stout,” Founders Breakfast Stout is to “coffee stout.” A hugely influential, wonderfully tasty brew, it helped pioneer the addition (and combination) of popular adjuncts such as coffee, cocoa and oatmeal in a single stout, with spectacular results that pushed imperial stout brewing into a new dimension, much in the same way that new hop varietals did for IPA. And also, I must admit: This is the first beer that I ever truly, unabashedly fell head over heels for. Early in my beer experimentation, in a time when I was trying new styles, I had discovered some brands that I “liked.” My first sip of Breakfast Stout was the first time that “like” turned to “love,” and likely the moment when I truly became an all-out beer obsessive for the first time. Since then, I confess that I’ve had imperial coffee stouts that I enjoy even more, but none of them will ever replace Founders Breakfast Stout in my personal hall of fame. It truly is essential.

Three Floyds Dark Lord

I already went on about Dark Lord above, but I feel like it’s pertinent to mention it here one more time. As availability of the rare stout increases, it’s no surprise that online ratings of the beer have fallen—this is to be expected with literally any rare beer, as availability is always correlated with perception of quality. But even moreso than others, Dark Lord has experienced a backlash in recent years; perhaps a bitterness reflected back by beer geeks who are rubbed the wrong way by the brewery’s handling of Dark Lord Day events or the way that event affected the culture of rare beer in general. It’s also entirely true that the rest of the industry has simply caught up, and that Dark Lord spawned many imitators, some of whom have likely surpassed it.

But at the same time … it’s still an incredibly delicious stout, if you can get your hands on some. Recently, I was lucky enough to enjoy a 2011 bottle during the Christmas break, the last remaining bottle from the only Dark Lord Day I’ve ever attended, or likely ever will attend. And it was great: Massive, vinous, dark fruity flavors, molasses and port wine richness, deep roast and perfectly integrated booze, tempered by five years of aging. The mouthfeel is enviously plush, velvety and thick as a wall. Suffice to say, it’s not all hype. There’s a reason that a cult started around this beer, and there’s a reason why the highest ABV imperial stouts of the 2000s and 2010s often resemble it. It’s really damn good.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer and whiskey geek, and he doesn’t think there’s such thing as too much imperial stout. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer coverage.

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