Welcome to Winter! It’s about time to start seeking out the heartier, more robust flavors of Winter beers – and we can think of no style better suited for the season than the various versions of Imperial Stouts.
Imperial Stouts can be further categorized into other sub-categories such as Foreign/Export Stout, American Double/Imperial Stout, and Russian Imperial Stout, but for simplicity sake, we’re going to combine the latter two for the purposes of this posting.
The origins of the “impy stout” date back to the late 1700’s, as the brewers in London were exporting a healthy quantity of beer (especially Porters, and hoppy Pale Ales that would eventually come to be known as India Pale Ales) to the Baltic states and Russia. By the late 18th century, especially strong Porters – some of which could reportedly be aged for 7 years – were being shipped to St. Petersburg, at the request of the Empress of Russia. By the mid 1800’s, these strong Porters began to be referred to as ‘imperial brown stouts’, among other things, and hence the imperial stout moniker was first formed. For a much more in-depth history lesson, check out this great article from Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile blog.
What To Expect
Imperial Stouts are some of the most complex and robust beers you can try. They will have a rich, dark malt flavor that can span from a dark chocolate sweetness to roasted coffee bean bitterness, and most will have a caramel quality as well. In many, you may notice a dark fruit quality like raisin or dried plums and prunes. Russian Imperial Stouts will tend to have slightly ‘harsher’ attributes, such as the roasted-to-burnt malt qualities and more alcohol phenols, while the American Imperial Stouts tend to lean on the sweeter side of the equation, and in general, will have a more pronounced hop profile as well. Both are big, burly beasts, and usually have an ABV of 9-12%. Carbonation should be low-to-moderate, leaving a chewy, velvety texture, and a warming alcohol presence in the finish.
Below is the Gateway Beers profile of the typical characteristics you can expect to find in an Imperial Stout…
In pairing up foods with beer, we generally lean toward complimentary (rather than contrasting) profiles, and that’s what we’ll do here as well. Since impy stouts will be both sweet and bitter, and always full bodied, we’d suggest going that route with your food as well. For cheeses, go with crumbly, blue-veined cheeses such as stilton, smoked blue, and gorgonzola. With your dinner entree, you really want to go with a well marbled steak, possibly with a cream sauce. Full-fat burgers work fine, too, especially when cooked on the grill – consider adding crumbled blue cheese and bacon for the ultimate burger buddy. With dessert, you have a ton of options, from cheescake, to tiramisu, to plain old brownies with ice cream… preferably a coffee or chocolate chunk ice cream.
The Imperial Stout is best served with a little “warmth”, meaning not straight out of the refrigerator. Serving at cellar temperatures will help accentuate all the nuances of this complex style, so enjoy yours in the 45-60 degree range. For glassware, most bars will serve it in a tulip, but we prefer the snifter, or nonic-style pint glass.
There are SOOOO many great examples to choose from – it makes narrowing the list down to a Top 5 almost impossible… but we’ll give it a go with these:
Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, 11.2% (Grand Rapids, MI)
Dieu Du Ciel Péché Mortel, 9.5% (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
AleSmith Speedway Stout, 12% (San Diego, CA)
Stone Imperial Russian Stout, 10.5% (Escondido, CA)
Port Brewing Older Viscosity, 12.1% (San Marcos, CA)
These 5 are simply the tip of the perverbial impy stout iceberg, as there are
dozens, no, hundreds to try. We encourage your journey to begin by checking out our additional recommendations on our American Double / Imperial Stout page, and our Russian Imperial Stout page.