The Big Boys – Imperials as Part of the Stout Family

The Big Boys – Imperials as Part of the Stout Family

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

We’ve taken the time to talk about several stout varieties (here and here) and where you can find good examples of these in Indiana. Now it’s time to get down to business and talk about the big boys, the imperial stouts. When we say “imperial” with respect to a beer, it generally means “stronger than usual.” It applied first to the stouts, and one kind of stout in particular, but then leaked over in to the IPAs – the double IPA (DIPA), which can just as easily be called an imperial IPA (IIPA).

image credit: Evil Czech Brewery & Public House

Did it stop there? Of course not. Next came the imperial brown ales, then the imperial anything, put in more malt and maybe more hops and called it a double or imperial. There are imperial pilsners and even Imperial English milds! Of these last two oxymoronic brews, two come from favorite breweries of mine, Joseph James Brewing in Henderson, NV and Wild Mind Artisan Ales in Minneapolis.

Let’s start with the American imperial stout, inspired by the earlier British versions, and then we’ll get into just where the moniker Imperial came from.

American Imperial Stout. The 1980s saw a lot of beer innovation in the US, and the birth of the American imperial stout can definitely be traced back to the popularity of an imported version, the Samuel Smith Imperial stout. While it weighed in at only 7%, this was big for that time period, and it came in a beautiful bottle. People bought it up by the case, so naturally American examples started to appear shortly thereafter.

You may see American imperial stouts named as double stouts, but just like with the IPAs and such that came later, double = imperial. They became so popular so quickly that many people believe the imperial stout must have been an American invention, and indeed it is the US where you can find the most examples of the style. American stouts are deep and dark, but the imperials up the ante considerably.

The American imperial stouts are so popular that you are just as likely to see a release party for one of them in the summer as you are the winter; in fact, it might be the American imperial that turned many a craft fan into a year round stout drinker (there are a lot of them out there). Narwahl from Sierra Nevada comes out in September, Stalin’s Darkside (a Russian imperial stout) from Evil Czech Brewery & Public House doesn’t come out until spring practically begins in early March, and The Rusty Nail from Fremont Brewing in Seattle is released every June. Heck, Bomb! from Prairie Artisan Ales is pretty much a year-round beer!

Imperial stouts go well with rich desserts. Put them together and you get pastry stouts. image credit: beer advocate

No matter when they are released, American imperial stouts are good drinking because they age so well (also related to birth of the imperial stouts, see below). It is their deep flavor, big body, and roast that help them stand up to Father Time so well. These same flavor and body characteristics make them amenable to big flavor additions – chocolate, peppers, coffee, vanilla, etc. Additional flavors add even more complexity to a complex style of beer, but it’s hard for them to overwhelm imperial stout’s own flavors – it’s why they are so good as bourbon barrel aged beers. Aromas and flavors can often run to the coffee, even if no coffee is added. You might get just a bit of stone fruit, but the ester (fruit) flavors are usually subtle.

The America Imperials (as well as the British/Russians talked about below) go so well with rich desserts that I suppose it was only a matter time before brewers starting putting the desserts in the imperial stouts. Pastry/dessert/adjunct stouts have become so popular that they are really seen as a style all their own now, but never forget that they are usually built on American imperial stout backbone.

Any malt and any hop can be used, the key is to make the roasted malt flavor sing out and to give the beer those layers of flavor that make it so bold but also nuanced. American imperials use roasted barley in about the same measurements for small stouts, but then start adding in the specialty malts and grains – chocolate, dark, caramel, rye/wheat/oatmeal, etc. With these, all types of flavors are possible and they create a great mouthfeel. The hops can range from subtle to fairly apparent, but it’s the malt that drives this beer style.

Alcohol levels are fairly high due to the added malt (sugar) and the good fermentation time, but they don’t end up dry from letting the yeast eat up too much of the sugar; it is residual sugar that adds to the body and flavor. That said, they can get boozy tasting and warm to the throat.

MashCraft’s Mariana Stout is so good. I hope they hold their Stout Bonanza this year. image credit: MashCraft Brewing

Indiana Examples of Imperial American stouts: 2Toms Brewing’s Dark Necessity, Deviate Brewing’s Pimp Nuts – or any of their other imperial stouts, Traders Brewing’s Mr. Magoo’s Strong Stout, Our Lady of Perpetual Hops’ Whipples Harged, Taxman Brewing’s Evasion, Birdboy Brewing’s Void Communion, MashCraft Brewing’s Mariana, Four Fathers Brewing’s Wheelhouse, Triton Brewing’s Deadeye, Burn ‘Em Brewing’s Gluttony, Myriad Brewing’s The Friends with Benefits Auburn Brewing’s Blown Motor.

Russian Imperial Stouts. If you look in a beer geek’s cellar, it ‘s probable that many of the bottles/cans are going to be imperial stouts – because they age so well. In fact, being able to age well is one of the reasons that they were born.  The story parallels that of the IPA, but concerns a different part of the world.

The condensed version goes like this. 1) British brewers develop porters and stouts and they become insanely popular. 2) The rise of the British Empire combined with thriving shipping industry leads to expansion of British beer shipments into the Baltic region (which is where the Baltic porter comes from). 3) The stouts were very popular, but it would help if they lasted longer, for commercial reasons. 4) British strong stouts were then produced, with more hops and more alcohol as preservatives. 5) The Russian Imperial Court were huge fans of the style, Catherine the Great sealed the deal with her love of strong stouts and they came to be known as Russian Imperial Stouts.

You see that the birth of the style was driven by economic necessity, but the growth of the style was based on the beer itself. And yet, however important the Russian Imperial was then, it has grown into an even bigger monster so that its impact on modern beer is greater than on historical beer. Yet the brands of some Russian imperials definitely evoke the history of the style. Courage, made by Charles Wells Brewing until recently had a label that was quintessential czarist Russia for 200 years. Catherine the Great’s guru, Rasputin, lent his name to one of the best selling RIS’s in the US, Old Rasputin from North Coast Brewing.

John Courage made one of the first Russian Imperials and made it for hundreds of years. image credit: brew/drink/run

Many English breweries were making and shipping strong porters and strong stouts to the world, so it was no great surprise that they found their way to the US as well. That was where the story stalled until the emergence of the craft brewing industry in the 1980s, when American stouts diverged from their British counterparts and American Imperials were developed to parallel the Russian Imperials.

There you have it, British Imperial Stouts beget Russian Imperial stouts, and together they (much later) were direct influences on the American Imperial Stouts. British Imperials that didn’t make the journey east did diverge to become the Russians, enough so that in today’s craft beer style guides that are judged as different styles. And both the British and the Russian versions differ from the American Imperial. They really are three different styles, although examples of each will cross over and blur the lines.

Russian Imperials are usually the darkest and richest of the bunch, black in color where British versions can be copper to darker. American Imperials are sort of in between, but modern ones do lean a little toward the Russians. In short, no one outside of a BJCP judging room is going to fault you if you need to look up whether a specific beer is a British, Russian, or American Imperial stout, but a general classification could have the following criteria:


Type           —British Imperial—              —Russian Imperial—              —American Imperial—

Color:         dark copper to very dark.      Very dark red to ink black.                     Black

Clarity:       opaque to some chill haze.               Opaque                                       opaque

Malt:          rich, toffee, caramel, roast    coffee, leather, ROAST                  Rich, ROASTY

Other:                   some ester                                more ester                                 high ester

Hop:              moderate, balanced               medium-low to high                  med. High to high

Bitterness:                medium                                    High                                   high to very high

Alcohol taste:              some                                        high                                           high

Body:                              full                                       very full                                       full


Indiana Examples of Russian/British Imperial stouts: Three Floyds’ Dark Lord, Ellison Brewing’s Four Horsemen, 18th Street’s Bitches Bank, Bare Hands’ Mail Order Bride, Black Acre’s Beard Tax, The Tap Brewery’s Kill The Lights, Upland Brewing’s Teddy Bear Kisses, Malt Brothers Brewing’s Tsenturion, The Devil’s Trumpet Brewing’s Heaven’s Court, Evil Czech Brewery’s Stalin’s Darkside, New Albanian’s Thunderfoot, and the Tsar Bomba from about four different breweries.


banner image credit: Absolute Beer

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