What is an Imperial Stout?

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First Posted: 1/7/2014

Style: Russian Imperial Stout or American Double/Imperial Stout

Brief history: The Russian Imperial Stout style dates back to Catherine the Great from Russia, during the 1700s when she made a trip to England and fell in love with the flavor of stout. However, when she requested some be sent to her, it had spoiled by the time it reached her due to the lengthy travel. Catherine the Great was one who got what she wanted, so brewers quickly got to work, and the finished stout tipped the scales at a whopping 10.5 percent, strong enough to make the trip. Russians all loved it and a new style was born – Russian Imperial Stout, named so due to the markings placed on the bottles for shipment. The American version is a take on the Russian, but tends to be higher in ABV and a bit sweeter.

Standard characteristics: The style is intensely flavored, with all flavors making their presence known in the beer. Bitterness also plays a part in the flavor, but not hop bitterness; instead, it’s more from the roasted malts and chocolate. The ABV for the style ranges a great deal, with many American versions leaning towards the higher end of between seven and 12 percent. This style can also age for a number of years, and the age of the beer will greatly affect common characteristics.

Nose: The aroma is very rich and complex with detectable aromas typically being roasted malts, coffee, dark fruit, bitter chocolate, hops, and alcohol. Many versions tend to be barrel-aged, which brings out other dimensions in the beer depending on what type of barrel was used for aging.

Body: The body is very full and can feel almost chewy with a velvety, smooth, and luscious texture. Carbonation tends to be low to help create the smooth texture of the beer, but will vary upon age.

Taste: The flavors are very deep, intense, and complex with roasted malts/grains, fruity esters, hop bitterness, chocolate, and coffee being the most detectable. Alcohol heat is also a common taste many experience with this style due to the higher ABV. Imperial Stouts also have a surprisingly dry finish, but do leave behind a warming characteristic.

Food pairing: This is an absolutely perfect dessert beer and goes well with a wide range of treats. Try pairing it with your favorite cakes, pastries, ice cream, or any other rich and decadent desserts. The biggest thing to watch for with this style is to be careful not to pair it with a dessert that is easily overpowered, as this beer loves to throw its hefty weight around.

Recommendations: The Imperial Stout style can be overwhelming for some not used to the stout style, but many of these beers are extremely approachable with a huge flavor profile present, and all of these are absolute must-haves for the style:

• Samuel Smith – Imperial Stout

• AleSmith – Speedway Stout

• Founders – Founders Breakfast Stout

• Flying Dog – Kujo Imperial Coffee Stout

• Goose Island – Bourbon County Brand Stout

• Avery – The Czar

• Dogfish Head – World Wide Stout

• North Coast – Old Rasputin

• Stone Brewing Co. – Imperial Russian Stout