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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
City: Downingtown, PA
Key ingredient: Spicy hops
Perfect for: Open pit brisket
The verdict: Victory’s description of this beer mentions both a “thundering, hoppy appeal” and “massive hop aroma,” which affirms our tasters’ perceptions of this especially hop-forward East Coast imperial stout. Interestingly though, it’s the character of those hops that stand out—rather than the citrus and pine one might expect, there’s much more of that floral and spicy quality one would expect out of European noble hops, which give Storm King an unusual flavor profile for this field. Roast and bitterness are also high.
City: Astoria, OR
Key ingredient: Plenty of roasted barley
Perfect for: Drinkers who like imperial stouts but hate sugar bombs
The verdict: Quite dry and very roasty, Fort George’s North VIII is a pretty classic Russian imperial stout in style, and one that doesn’t seem to have much interest in catering to the sweet tooth crowd. There’s a ghost of dark chocolate present here, but it’s largely dominated by that ashy roastiness, which some drinkers love and others shun. We have several other barrel-aged variations on imperial stouts from Fort George, and it will be interesting to see how they can transform this base style in the upcoming barrel-aged stout ranking.
City: Lakewood, NY
Key ingredient: Every form of sugar and lactose imaginable
Perfect for: Sipping and then immediately spending three hours on the treadmill.
The verdict: Creme Brulee is among the most accurately named beers we’ve ever tasted, and a feat in flavor science. We have no idea how they manage to pack such sweetness and milky, creamy richness into this brew, and I don’t think we want to know. The very definition of niche beer or dessert beer, this is the kind of stout that would be considered a holy grail to some drinkers. It’s like an incredible decadent latte with a cap of heavy cream foam, topped with a dollop of dulce de leche. For many drinkers, a shot glass serving size will be plenty, but there’s no denying that this beer is absolutely unique.
City: Petaluma, CA
Key ingredient: At the risk of sounding repetitive, roasted malt
Perfect for: Taking a brief break from DIPAs.
The verdict: This is like one of those examples of an imperial stout that is perfectly serviceable and hits all the right notes, and would be a fine choice to show someone what the style is really all about. And yet it’s also a holdover of sorts, a beer that has been produced for years and hasn’t gotten any younger. It’s a smoky, roasty beer with hints of caramel and dark fruitiness, and it probably would have blown people’s minds back in the early 2000’s. Today, it finds itself in the middle of the pack with a whole lot of others.
City: San Leandro, CA
Key ingredient: Kenyan kangunu coffee
Perfect for: Red eye beer gravy
The verdict: This imperial coffee stout was well-liked by most of the tasters, who appreciated its straightforward coffee character. It has an interesting aroma in particular with an unexpected orange citrus note that pops up from seemingly nowhere. Coffee is present but not overwhelming by any stretch, and blends well into the imperial stout’s natural roastiness. We also dig the cool label, but that won’t earn you any bonus points.
City: Grand Rapids, MI
Key ingredient: 10 varieties of malted barley
Perfect for: Impressing friends who thought they’d had every Founders stout
The verdict: Founders Imperial Stout is a bit of a cult hit when compared with the phenomenal Breakfast Stout, but in the midst of our tasting it couldn’t really make its presence felt as strongly as its coffee and chocolate cousin. Most tasters agreed that it was a good beer on its own merits, boasting a typical profile of roast, dark chocolate and sherry-like booziness with a bit of a metallic tinge, but it was difficult not to compare it to some of Founders other, legendary offerings, several of which will show up in this list and in our upcoming barrel-aged list as well.
City: Atlanta, GA
Key ingredient: Boatloads of citric hops
Perfect for: The IPA fan who wants to be seen drinking something dark
The verdict: One of the most unique beers on the table, Sweetwater’s Happy Ending is seriously hoppy. There were other hoppy beers in the 37 on this list, but none of them are like this—its aroma explodes out of the glass with citrusy West Coast hops that dominate the proceedings. There’s some chocolatey character as well, but it’s hard to get past just how hop-forward it is—in a good way, though. Thoroughly an “American imperial stout,” Sweetwater could just as easily release this as an “imperial black IPA,” and nobody would argue with the label. Honestly, it would be one of the best imperial black IPAs we’ve had. Also, we feel certain that they would have named it “Hoppy Ending” if the name had been available.
City: Kansas City, MO
Key ingredient: Belgian yeast
Perfect for: The darker corner of the monastery
The verdict: We only had a few “Belgian stouts” present, and Dark Truth was probably the most assertive of them in terms of its Belgian yeast character. The nose hits you with something unique: A bit of funkiness and some banana esters. Flavors of crisp grain and chocolate hide the alcohol level very well. It’s an intriguing imperial stout that decides to take things in a different direction and not hide the providence of those flavors—nobody is going to taste this and not realize there’s a Belgian yeast strain in play.
City: Lakewood, NY
Key ingredient: Lemon peel, believe it or not.
Perfect for: An afternoon cafe luncheon
The verdict: Southern Tier has hit on something interesting with their whole 2X line, which more often than not are almost “sessionable” imperial beers on the low end of their style in terms of ABV. They’ve also gotten creative with flavoring: In addition to the espresso that is obviously involved in this beer, per the name, they made the curious choice to add lemon peel or zest to the equation. Pretty much everyone who tasted this beer agreed that the lemon was a welcome creative touch that added a necessary element of complexity and made it stand out in a way that the base beer would not.
City: Escondido, CA
Key ingredient: Just boatloads of malt
Perfect for: People building vertical collections in their cellars.
The verdict: This beer has, by Stone’s own admission, barely changed since 2000, which makes it perfect for those craft beer fans who conduct vertical tastings to see how a beer’s profile changes over time. No matter the year, however, you’re likely to notice prominent booziness, a hint of licorice-like anise and bittersweet chocolate. A classic RIS without a doubt, and another of those classic styles to end up in the middle of the pack partially by virtue of being familiar.
City: New York, NY
Key ingredient: A careful blend of six malts
Perfect for: That guy who buys the 90% cacao chocolate bar in the health food aisle.
The verdict: Brooklyn’s offering has “chocolate” in the name, but that’s more in terms of an impression than implying the use of actual cocoa, which may well be for the best. This is a big, heavily roasty ale that stays dry while suggesting notes of raspberry and of course, dark chocolate. For a beer with “chocolate” in the name, it’s probably more sophisticated and subtle than you’re expecting.
City: Seattle, WA
Key ingredient: Rolled oats
Perfect for: The laid-back, zen-like imperial stout drinker
The verdict: If we simply came across it on the shelf, we might not have included this beer as part of an imperial stout tasting, given that it hangs right on the edge of the label at 7.5%. However, Elysian does refer to it as an “imperial oatmeal stout” and did send it in to be included in the tasting, so it’s hard to argue with that. The flavors are definitely solid: Oatmeal creaminess, bready flavors and subtle roast lead the way, although once again it doesn’t seem all that “imperial.” One might actually think of it as a really excellent oatmeal stout that is a little bit too big for its britches, but regardless, lovers of oatmeal stouts will enjoy it. Whether they’ll continue buying from Elysian after selling out to Anheuser last week, on the other hand, is another matter.
City: Tulsa, OK
Key ingredient: An unidentified blend of spices
Perfect for: Building a gingerbread house with increasingly shoddy construction, the more you drink.
The verdict: Ostensibly a spiced beer and significantly lower in ABV than Prairie’s regular Bomb! Imperial Stout, this is a bit of an unusual ale that divided the tasters a bit. Some seemed to be expecting more from and 11.5% ABV stout with spices, but others found strong appreciation for its subtleties. Rich with mocha flavors, it boasts an impressively thick mouthfeel but manages to stay fairly dry. The spices don’t really make the biggest impression on its taste profile when all is said and done, cropping up for a moment with a few lingering flavors of cinnamon and anise. But all in all, a very subtle hand was steering this beer.
City: Kalamazoo, MI
Key ingredient: Enough dark malt to turn its cap of foam completely brown
Perfect for: Keeping warm while ice fishing
The verdict: A classic example of the style that has been around for ages, Expedition Stout doesn’t play games and tends to run a bit hot. The booze is definitely there to remind you of its presence—it’s like something you would take a little nip from out of a flask. Roast is actually turned down a bit, and rather you get plenty of caramelized sweetness and dark fruity flavors, which are only enhanced by the alcohol. A rich, sweet sipper.
City: Boulder, CO
Key ingredient: Oats, honey malt
Perfect for: Toasting with appetizers for the Big Game
The verdict: We’re in a stretch here of classic, old-school Russian imperial stouts that all set expectations for the style in American brewing. Avery’s is one of those, a big, roasty monster with plenty of buttered toffee and molasses sweetness to back it up. Many of the beers in this range laid the foundations for today’s crazy experimentation in the imperial stout style. That sounds like a bit of a eulogy, but they’re still wonderful to drink today, and given their wide availability are often good for aging. Odd factoid about The Czar, though: The ABV changes quite a bit from year to year, from as low as 10.5% all the way up to 13%.
City: Easton, PA
Key ingredient: Abbey ale yeast
Perfect for: A hearty bowl of bouillabaisse and crusty bread
The verdict: This imperial stout doesn’t announce its Belgian yeast presence quite as strongly as Boulevard’s Dark Truth did, and maintains a bit better balance between fruit, spice and roasty flavors. One taster summarized it thusly: “Belgian yeast. Banana esters. Chocolate sundae.” Perhaps the basis of a Belgian banana split? Regardless, beers like this were a pleasant addition to break up the flow of so many classic RIS’s.
City: Warrenville, IL
Key ingredient: American hops
Perfect for: Chicago beer brats
The verdict: One of the better pure examples we got of a classic Russian imperial stout, Two Brothers Northwind was firing on all cylinders with the tasting notes you would expect: Very clean with a firm, solid roastiness and good coffee character, backed up by a bit of caramel and vanilla and chased with plenty of American hops. We wish this one was year-round: It’s very close to what one would call a platonic ideal of RIS.
City: St. Louis, MO
Key ingredients: dried chiles, cacao nibs, vanilla bean, cinnamon stick
Perfect for: A big, warm quilt. That, or a huge plate of braised chicken tamales.
The verdict: Wow, is this ever a unique one. Every taster agreed on one inevitable comparison: This thing tastes like Mexican hot chocolate. I mean exactly like Mexican hot chocolate. It’s incredible. Some tasters thought found this utterly delicious, citing the richness of the chocolate, strong cinnamon flavor and complex, dark, ancho-like fruitiness provided by the dried chiles. Others thought the chiles presented themselves a little bit too strongly, making it difficult to drink in volume. All agreed that this was a unique, engaging tasting experience that you should seek out as soon as you get the chance—especially if you love chiles or Mexican hot chocolate.
City: Athens, GA
Key ingredients: Coffee and flavoring magic
Perfect for: Boozy brunch
The verdict: A lot of beer names are only suggestive of what a beer tastes like—but not this one. This imperial stout tastes like French toast. Seriously. It tastes like a big, thick piece of golden brown French toast, topped with powdered sugar and maple syrup, washed down by coffee. It is breakfast in a bottle. Moreover, everything is in great balance—the maple and coffee don’t go out of control, and you’re still aware that you’re drinking a stout. This beer was a shocker. It seems like a concept that could have been a big mess, but Terrapin pulls it off in fine style, making a beer that not only tastes like French toast, but it tastes like French toast that you want to drink.
City: Chicago, IL
Key ingredient: Dark Matter coffee
Perfect for: An all-night, beer-fueled studying bender
The verdict: Big coffee flavors abound here—possibly the most coffee-forward beer of the entire tasting, with a complex blend of coffee notes that make the aroma reminiscent of a coffee shop where lots of varietals are being ground at once. In particular there’s an interesting herbal quality that one doesn’t usually get from coffee beers. Beyond that it’s big, roasty and not otherwise too complicated outside its excellent coffee character. Half Acre is a brewery more associated with doing big, hoppy beers, but they can pull off a mean stout as well when they feel like it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.