Planning my columns in advance has obvious advantages, but it leaves little room for spontaneity. When the mercury recently plunged into the single digits, I decided to shelve my planned brewery review to profile a robust style instead — something to quell the worst of Old Man Winter.
Stout is one of my favorite styles. It has more variations on a theme than Haydn could have imagined. However, one of its substyles, Russian Imperial Stout, stands heads and shoulders above the rest — at the pantheon of royalty in the beer world.
Like many brews, its origin is convoluted. Stout was born in England in the late 17th century. Its link with Russia supposedly began when Czar Peter the Great visited London in 1698. He fell in love with “Stout” beers, which at the time meant alcoholic strength, not dark color. At approximately the same time, English brewers were experimenting with darker styles. Porter and, shortly thereafter, Stout (strong) Porter became the toast of London, blurring the lines between terminology and styles.
With diplomatic relations in place, Anchor Brewing sent a shipment of Stout Porter to a thirsty Imperial Russia. Unfortunately, the 1,500 mile voyage wasn’t kind; the delivery didn’t survive. The second attempt, a batch bolstered by higher alcohol and hop bitterness, fared much better and Russian Imperial Stout (RIS) was born. Empress Catherine the Great was one of its biggest fans. She received regular shipments of Entire — the original name for aged strong Stout in the late 18th century.
Today, the bulk of Russian Imperial Stout is brewed in the United States, where it’s taken on a cult-like status. Old Rasputin, made by North Coast Brewing in California and The Czar, made by Avery Brewing in Colorado, are considered to be gold standards of the style. Yearly releases of Dark Lord at Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Indiana; Darkness at Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Hunahpu at Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida have become special event celebrations.
In keeping with its moniker, Imperial Stouts are big brews, with a minimum of 8-percent alcohol and usually at least 10-percent. Although Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout has occasionally eclipsed 20-percent. As with many American interpretations, our versions of RIS are hoppier than their English counterparts. American brewers also aren’t shy about substituting citrusy and piney IPA hops for traditional European earthy and floral varieties.
Amazingly, this over-the-top brew is capable of delivering a myriad of flavors—chocolate, coffee, roasted malt, toffee and dark fruit, for starters — all interwoven with incredible subtlety. The style has a full body, almost chewy — with a velvety and luscious mouthfeel. RIS is also versatile, amenable to additions of spices, fruit, peppers and barrel aging —adding even more complexity, with flavors of spirits, oak and vanilla.
Speaking of aging, Russian Imperial Stout cellars extremely well. It can be “laid down” for several years. In fact, at least six months of cellaring is often recommended to mellow the flavors.
Hope you enjoy this month’s selections as much as Karol and I did. Russian Imperial Stout is best served at 55°F from a tulip glass. Sip slowly, savor its many nuanced flavors and laugh right in Old Man Winter’s face. Cheers!
From Stone Brewing in San Diego, home of West Coast IPAs, comes Xocoveza. Its dark brown pour sports a thick and resilient mocha head. Aromas of chocolate dominate over notes of coffee and spices. The body is rich and creamy. Subtle flavors of dark chocolate, espresso and cinnamon weave a complex and synergistic tapestry that’s far more than the sum of its individual parts. Karol pegged Xocoveza as excellent dessert beer and at just over 8-percent alcohol, there’s little need to feel guilty about having a second one.
Marley’s Brewery and Grille in Bloomsburg is the local representative with its oatmeal imperial Wolfgang von Stout, named after brewer Taylor Rogers’ Siberian Husky. Its thin beige head dissipates quickly. Scents of coffee and caramel caress the nose. Thick and creamy, it drinks effortlessly. The flavors are a balance of roast, chocolate and coffee — with hints of toffee. Wolfgang finishes dry and satisfying. There’s a touch of hop bitterness. Like Xocoveza, its alcohol percentage is a hospitable 8.2-percent, so enjoy.
When I began drinking craft beer in the ‘90’s, Brooklyn Brewing’s Black Chocolate Stout was my go-to dark brew. It’s still relevant today. Aromas of bitter baker’s chocolate and roasted malt meld as one. The body is light for an Imperial Stout, making it almost too drinkable for a 10-percent alcohol brew. Flavors of roast dominate notes of chocolate, with hints of licorice. There’s a firm hop bite at the end of a dry finish, accompanied by a pleasant warming sensation. It was a pleasure to get re-acquainted with this old friend.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s Gingerbread Stout was near the top of several “Best of 2017” lists. Karol and I had to try it. Its caramel-colored head is thick and frothy, resonating sweet aromas of honey and toffee. The mouthfeel is velvety, but a bit thin. However, it’s still more than adequate. Flavors of bready malt mesh with notes of ginger and molasses. Then, delicate spice flavors — cinnamon and vanilla — emerge. It finishes enjoyably sweet, another dessert brew to enjoy beside a crackling fireplace.
(The Brew Dude is published monthly on the Food and Drink Page. For comments, suggestions, or questions, email Mark Pasquinelli at email@example.com)