Posted on February 25th, 2010
Russian Imperial Stout is one of the heaviest styles of beer around, often ranging from 7 to 10% ABV. Much like Baltic porters it’s named not for who made it but who it was made for. Russian imperial stouts were first brewed in the 18th century by brewers in Burton, England to be shipped to the court of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Catherine apparently became quite smitten by stouts during a visit to England and demanded some be sent back to her when she returned home; unfortunately the first few batches did not survive the long trip to Russia. Catherine demanded that the English find some way to get her beloved porter to her, and being empress, she got what she wanted. To accomplish this goal the Barclay Perkins brewery crafted a stout to survive the trek much sweeter and stronger than anything available in England at the time and a new style was born.
Today, many years after Catherine’s passing, Russian imperial stouts continue to be brewed not just in England, but around the world. In particular the style has caught on among bold and adventuresome American craft brewers, who see the style as an opportunity to flex their brewing muscle and a chance to brew the heaviest, sweetest beer they can. Due to the styles popularity craft brewers in the US the term ‘imperial’ has come to signify any style that’s especially strong in flavor, alcohol or both. The double, or ‘imperial’ IPA is perhaps the most common example of this phenomenon
This style shares much in common with other heavy stouts and porters, like the Baltic porter. They are both sweet and strong, with bold flavors of dark chocolate, roasted coffee and toffee. That being said, there are some key differences between the two styles. The imperial stout tends be much sweeter than the Baltic porter, and it is usually not nearly as dry. Still, don’t feel bad if you have trouble telling the two apart, they are similar.
The are numerous absolutely delicious versions of this style from many different brewers. Perhaps the best known in America is Old Rasputin, from North Coast brewing. Other notable examples include Storm King from Victory and Ten Fidy from Oskar Blues. Rogue, Stone, and Samuel Smith also have great takes on the style as well.