Style Profile: Russian Imperial Stout

This issue’s Style Profile examines an oft-cited, if little-understood, style of beer.

By Michael Agnew
Illustration by DWITT

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Rich, warming, and impenetrably black, Russian imperial stout is one of the most beloved beer styles. Twenty-five of Ratebeer.com’s top-50 beers of 2013 are imperial stouts. They comprise 16 of the 50 top-rated beers on Beer Advocate. The beers that most inspire drinkers to queue up overnight for release—Surly Darkness, Three Floyds Dark Lord, and Portsmouth’s Kate the Great—are all imperial stouts. The style’s popularity can’t be denied.

It’s not without reason. Imperial stouts overflow with character. Velvety chocolate, bitter coffee, and notes of dark fruits, caramel, and molasses give them depth of flavor that seems almost as unfathomable as their inky blackness. Imperial stout envelops the tongue like a comforting blanket on a cold night.

Related Post: Profiling American Wild Ale

Like all stouts, Russian imperial stout has its origins as a porter. During the late 18th-century, the heyday of porter production in London, porters were brewed to various strengths. The heftiest of them were called “stout porters.” The porter brewers sold these strong, dusky ales as “double brown stout,” “imperial porter,” and “imperial double brown stout,” along with numerous other terms meant to imply great strength.

The “imperial” in these designations likely referred to the strong export trade that the London brewers had with the Baltic States and Russia, including the imperial court of Czarina Catherine the Great. One famous example from the Thrale’s Anchor Brewery in London is mentioned in a 1796 diary entry by landscape painter Joseph Farington, who wrote, “I drank some porter Mr. Lindoe had from Thrale’s brewhouse. He said it was specially brewed for the Empress of Russia.” Though Anglo-Russian beer trade was probably long established by the time of Farington’s writing, the term “Russian” doesn’t appear to have been attached to imperial stout until the early 20th-century.

Like the myth that India pale ale was invented to survive the sea voyage from England to the Indian subcontinent, stories have been told that the super-strong stout was created to prevent the beer from freezing en route to Russia. This is almost certainly not true. Strong porters were being brewed for the home market as well. And it would have required extremely cold temperatures for the beer to freeze. The truth is that, then as now, strong beers were brewed because that’s what customers demanded.

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Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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