May It Please the Court
We would like to tell you that the Russian imperial stout was born in Russia, brewed as a robust and hearty ale that could stave off the country’s harsh, cold winters. No doubt such a fact would romanticize the style. Sadly, it’s not the case.
The Russian imperial stout actually began in England as a porter, which at the time was an easy-drinking dark ale characterized by a dose of highly roasted malts. During a trip to England in the late 17th century, Peter the Great fell in love with the style and requested that some be sent to the Russian imperial court. Much to his dismay, the beers spoiled over their 1,000-mile journey. As a remedy, the English brewery drastically increased the hops and the amount of alcohol, to better preserve the ales over the long voyage to the Russian capital.
The second shipment of beers that arrived in Russia were not only fresh, but bigger and bolder than those that Peter the Great had first encountered. Thus the Russian imperial stout was born. “It’s the biggest, baddest beer style there is,” says Chris Quinn, the owner of the Beer Temple in Chicago and a master of beer styles and evaluation. “It really is the king of beers, Budweiser notwithstanding.”
According to Quinn, the style attracts a lot of beer drinkers who live by the mantra that bigger is better. Because of that, there are a number of just average Russian imperial stouts that are highly rated in some beer-review circles. The reason for that? Quinn points to the big, bold flavors that are inherent in the style. “You don’t have to go searching for subtleties or complexities or nuances,” he says. “You can also hide a lot of potential flaws in a Russian imperial stout that you could never get away with with a lighter beer.”
That being said, Quinn is quick to praise a number of examples that he feels are exceptional interpretations. In his opinion, the following three stouts (in no particular order) are all medal winners.
Produced by the North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif., this Russian imperial stout is the perfect introduction to the style. “It’s true to form and very well made,” Quinn says, “and it’s an approachable and accessible version of the style.”
Courage was one of the first Russian imperial stouts brewed, and it remains one of the best. As Quinn explains, the beer—crafted by Wells and Young’s in the United Kingdom—also ages remarkably well. “Recently there was a bottle opened here in Chicago from 1975, and it was still alive and kicking, if you can believe it,” he says.
What does a well-aged Russian imperial stout taste like, you ask? “The bitterness completely fades away and it takes on this really dark, fudgy, chocolaty note to it,” Quinn says. “What was once an angular beer with different pronounced flavors becomes a very rounded experience.”
Want a thick, molasses-like stout that’s as dark as the deepest depths of the sea? The folks at Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colo., have you covered with their Ten FIDY. “You feel like you’re pouring motor oil out of the can when you open that one up,” Quinn says.
The flavors are equally bold, but don’t assume the beer isn’t balanced. In fact, there is more hops underneath all the malty goodness than you can expect to find in even the most hopped-up double IPA. “Because it’s so big, the amount of bitterness in it is crucial,” Quinn explains. “You don’t notice that it’s there, but you would notice if it wasn’t there.”