The Beer Nut: The czar of beers

Norman Miller

Russian imperial stouts draw big crowds.

Breweries around the country -- Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire, Three Floyds in Indiana and the Bruery in California, among them -- hold special events when interpretations of the style are sold just that one day a year. These events draw hundreds, sometimes thousands, who just want a chance to get a taste and a bottle of these beers.

Russian imperial stouts are big beers -- they're not easy drinking, light beers. They're robust, flavorful and strong -- you'd be hard-pressed to find an imperial stout under 8 percent alcohol by volume, with many well above 10 percent ABV.

What are the origins of the Russian imperial stout style? The following is a conglomeration of several histories of the style found on numerous websites, combined with information I have gleaned from several sources over the years.

Although "Russia" is in the name, Russian imperial stouts were created in England in the 1700s. Porters were popular in those days but somehow the Russian court discovered this beer.

Travel back then was a long, arduous effort, and many beers of the day could not survive a long trip without spoiling.

"The reputation and enjoyment of Porter is by no means confined to England," according to the "History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Savior, Southwark," a book, originally published in 1795, written by Irish poet Matthew Concanen.

"The Empress of All Russia (Catherine II) is indeed so partial to Porter that she has ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking and that of her court," Concanen wrote.

It was a long trip to ship beer from England to Russia, so brewers started brewing stronger and stronger beers. The higher alcohol helped it from spoiling and freezing.

That higher alcohol required more malts, hops and other ingredients, creating a bigger, heftier beer than the average porter/stout of the time, which often came in at under 5 percent ABV.

Today, Russian imperial stouts are some of the most popular and most sought-after beers in the world.

According to its standard, the Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP), the American Homebrewers Association says a Russian imperial stout should smell "rich and complex" with aromas of roasted grains, coffee, chocolate and even caramel.

Flavor-wise, the beer should be "frequently quite intense" and "the balance and intensity of the flavors can be affected by aging, with some flavors becoming more subdued over time and some aged, vinous or port-like qualities developing," according to the BJCP standard.

The style has evolved, with American craft brewers making it even bigger and bolder than their British counterparts.

The Russian imperial stout has one of the greatest ranges of flavors and ingredients of any style.

Some are brewed with oatmeal, coffee or chocolate. Sometimes, they're brewed with all three and then thrown in a bourbon barrel to age for several months before being sold. Great Divide Brewing Company in Colorado creates several versions of the same imperial stout: Yeti, Oak Aged Yeti, Barrel Aged Yeti, Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti and Espresso Oak Aged Yeti.

Russian imperial stouts aren't for the beer novice or those who want a quick drink. A good imperial stout will have a lot of complexity and it's a sipper of a beer, meant to be savored slowly instead of downed like your common mass-produced lager.

Here's a list of some of the best bottled Russian imperial stouts that you should be able to find on the shelves of local liquor stores: Brooklyn Brewing Company's Black Chocolate Stout, Stone Brewing Company's Imperial Russian Stout, North Coast's Old Rasputin Imperial Russian Stout, Victory Brewing Company's Storm King Stout, Berkshire Brewing Company's Imperial Stout and Hoppin' Frog's B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher Oatmeal-Imperial Stout.

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