Source of Styles #6 – Imperial Stouts

Imperial stouts – my personal favourite kind of beer. One that I know I can’t drink a lot of but I end up trying as many as I can when they’re on sale, and also end up drinking too much of. The colour, the aroma, the flavours, and the texture – such a happy marriage of them all together makes me want to savour, yet consume, the beer so much. Imperial stouts / Russian imperial stouts / imperial Russian stout / American double stouts or whatever you want to call them, are some of the boldest beers out there. The history of how the first imperial stout came about is a contentious issue, with various breweries trying to lay claim to the style. But one thing is for certain – it originated in the UK.

The first true ones though are attributed to the Anchor Brewery of Southwark, London, established all the way back in 1616, with many changes of ownership since then. In 1729, the brewery was purchased by Ralph Thrale, and was known as Thrale’s Anchor Brewery, and this likely seems to be the cradle of the first “Russian imperial stout.” The product became significantly more famous, however, after the Anchor Brewery was purchased from Thrale’s widow by Barclay Perkins & Co. in 1781.

It was only when Catherine The Great personally took a liking to the style that its popularity picked up somewhat. It’s documented in the History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Saviour, Southwark:

“The Empress of All Russia is indeed so partial to Porter that she has ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking and that of her court. It refreshes the brave soldiers who are fighting the battles of their country in Germany and animates with new ardour and activity the colonists of Sierra Leone and Botany Bay.”

Imperial stouts have also inspired other dark beers, namely the Baltic porter, which takes its name from the Baltic sea region. Like its older sibling, Baltic porters are strong – ranging from 9% to 14% – however, the main difference between the two is that the latter are strong dark lagers and NOT ales. The colder environment is well-suited to yeast that ferments at lower temperatures – enter the lager yeast.

However, the popularity of imperial stouts declined from the late 19th century onwards, mainly due to the costs of making such strong beers, and more of a demand for session beers instead. Even with the initial craft beer boom in the USA in the mid 80s, and the boom of craft beer in Japan in the late 90s, imperial stouts struggled to find a market outside of the winter months.

Yet, as breweries pushed for bigger and bolder beers, imperials stouts began to see marked improvement in their popularity as drinkers wanted bolder, more extreme beers. No other country has done for imperial stouts as either Russia did initially or as The USA did in the mid late 90’s / early 2000’s. The craft beer boom push for bigger, bolder, stronger beers meant that imperial stouts were seen to be the gap filler in the market.

Imperial stouts have also lent themselves to being canvases for brewers to try out new adjuncts or new flavours. Barrel aging programs, where a beer is stored in a cask that was previously used by a different alcohol, such as whisky or bourbon, are popular with brewers of imperial stouts. Pastry beers, those with adjuncts that you would normally find in cakes or pastries, have also begun to show up, with vanilla, dark fruits, or other spices too. Not all breweries can afford the space needed to store a beer for upwards of six months, so these pastry imperial stouts can help show off a breweries range as well.

Finally, if you are looking to age a beer, then imperial stouts are one of the best choices, mainly due to the high abvs. Imperial stouts are high in alcohol and very dark, two factors that should improve the odds of it aging better than most beers. Make sure your bottle uses corks with protective labels on. If not, then caps are fine; however, caps can leak over time, and it’s at least possible that you could leach compounds out of the liners of caps if you store the bottles on their sides. If a bottle is sitting upright, the only surface the beer is touching is glass.

Personally, I like to buy 6 bottles at a time then age them over a few years, while picking up some “new” bottles every year. This allows me to see how the flavours change – usually for the better, but sometimes for the weirder or worse – over time and compare them. I keep my stouts in my beer cellar at about 10c, with some in my beer fridge at about 2c, to see how the flavours change.

What was once seen as a winter beer has slowly moved itself into an all-year round product. That personally makes me very happy as a lover of imperial stouts; however, not everyone wants to drink them in the middle of the summer, especially in Japan where temperatures routinely hit 30c+.

Japanese Imperial Stouts Worth Trying

Regular

1) Baird Dark Sky Imperial Stout

2) Daisen G Beer Imperial Stout

3) Songbird Imperial Stout

4) Minoh Imperial Stout

Barrel Aged & Infused Stouts

1) Swan Lake Barrel Aged Imperial Stout

2) Shiga Kogen Takashi Ichiro

Let’s be honest – if you’re going to try a style of beer, then it’s also worth trying out some of the overseas beers. Here’s some foreign imperial stouts we also recommend. Check out the label on the bottle to see when the beer was bottled, and also ask how the beer was imported. Was it in a cold chain from start to finish? Was the beer stored in a chilled environment in store? If the shop assistant can’t, or doesn’t know the answer, then give it a miss.

  • AleSmith Speedway Stout (USA)
  • Founders KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout) (USA)
  • Epic Big Bad Baptista (USA)
  • Stone Imperial Russian Stout (USA)
  • Cloudwater Bourbon Chocolate Imperial Stout (UK)
  • Clown Shoes The Good, The Bad, & The Unidragon (USA)
About the Author

Rob

Been drinking beer since longer than I can remember. You can find me in a bar, on the slopes, or doing DIY. I enjoy porters, imperial porters, golden ales, and amber / viennas.

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