Brew Roundup: Russian Imperial Stout

There’s no middle-ground with a Russian imperial stout – you either love them or hate them. Pitch-black in colour with a rich, bitter flavour, these brews are most commonly found and best enjoyed during the depths of winter.

800px-Alexander_II_of_Russia_photo
Czar Alexander II

Despite the name, this style was created by the English. In the 18th Century, they created this style to be exported to Russia, to be enjoyed by czars and their families. To ensure that the beer would make the trip without going bad, these stouts were brewed with double the alcoholic volume of a typical stout, and loaded up with hops.

The Russian royals enjoyed the beer despite the changes to the brew, and Russian imperial stout has a small-ish but dedicated following today, including us at Hoppily Ever after – Josh in particular.

Choosing your brew

Like many specific styles in the craft beer community today, Russian imperial stout has a surprising amount of variance. In our very scientific description, the brews range from “kinda-heavy” to “super-heavy”. What we mean by that they typically start at 8% ABV, but can easily drive right on up to 15%, or even higher.

A deep, dark stout*

Because these beers have to be aged for several months to develop properly, breweries often create uniqueness in their products by aging their brews with added ingredients like fruit or roasted coffee beans, or in specialized containers such as wine or whiskey barrels.

Let’s start with some basics

To get a taste of what Russian imperial stout is, here’s a list to try that follow the basic style guidelines.

Grand River Brewing – Russian Gun

This is probably the best to start with, as it’s among the lightest and least bitter. A dark, malty taste and only light roastiness. It’s named after the cannon in downtown Galt (Cambridge), where Grand River brews from, and in commemoration of a tragic story surrounding the cannon itself.

Russian Gun Imperial Stout - Hoppily Ever After

Wellington Brewery – Imperial Russian Stout

That’s not a mistake – they just reversed the name. Rich and bold,  with notes of coffee and chocolate.

Sawdust City – Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus

Great name for a great beer. For a high-alcohol beer, it has a surprisingly dry finish (think Guinness), but still a rich flavour and refreshing bitterness – if you find bitterness refreshing, of course.

Sawdust city Imperial Stout - Hoppily Ever After

Nickel Brook Brewery – Bolshevik Bastard

It’s another big, bold brew (not surprising with Russian imperial stouts). On the roast-ier side, Bolshevik Bastard is brewed with a flavour reminiscent of dark chocolate.

And now for something a little different…

Some interesting offerings from Ontario craft breweries that play with the style description a bit.

Nickel Brook Brewery – Winey Bastard & Kentucky Bastard

Nickelbrook Imperial Stouts - Hoppily Ever After

Both of these are simple alterations on their Bolshevik Bastard. The first is aged in local Pinot Noir barrels, giving it a subtle red wine taste. The second is aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, blending a sweet bourbon oakiness and a warming feeling throughout.

Beau’s All Natural – The Bottle Imp

Many Russian imperials are brewed to resemble roasted coffee – here’s one that’s actually brewed with roasted coffee. It has a maltier finish, probably to offset the added bitterness from the coffee, and a subtle anise taste. This one definitely stands out from the pack.

 

*Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/10413717@N08/15933479008

Pumpkin Beer Taste Test

Pumpkin can be way more than just pie. It can hit the sweet or savory notes. Bread, desserts, vinegar, sauces, soup, pasta, molasses… the list goes on. But you might be surprised to learn that one of pumpkin’s earliest uses was for beer.

Pumpkin beer is on a short list of styles that originated right here in North America. For the earliest European settlers, good beer malt wasn’t an easy find. So they tried everything they could as a substitute, and finally found a winner: pumpkin.

Love it or hate it, pumpkin beer is a growing trend in the craft world today. Just take a look at the sea of orange labels that washes in each autumn! The most common type is a Pumpkin Ale – usually a brown or pale ale, brewed with the star ingredient itself, and often with added “pumpkin spices” (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, etc.). But pumpkin can be used in almost any variety of beer. 

Pumpkin Beer

To show some of its versatility, we’ve taken a variety of pumpkin beers off our local shelves and put them through a taste test.

Grand River Highballer Pumpkin Ale

Grand River Highballer Pumpkin Ale

On the paler side, the taste and aroma of fresh, raw pumpkin runs right through this brew. Jessica’s immediate reaction: “It tastes like the smell when you carve a jack o’lantern.” Although the flavour of the pumpkin itself was clear and fresh, it lacked an accompaniment that could have brought it to the next level.

Overall: 6/10

Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale

Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale

This was not the pumpkin ale we were looking for – but that wasn’t not necessarily a bad thing. The pumpkin taste was very subtle, but it focused on the roasty, savory flavour of the pumpkin, instead of the sweet side. Some extra points for going a slightly different route.

Overall: 7/10

St-Ambroise Citrouille (AKA the Great Pumpkin Ale)

St Ambroise Citrouille

This ale is definitely on the darker side of pumpkin beer, similar to an amber or Irish red. Unsurprisingly, the flavour is pleasantly rich, and reminiscent of your grandmother’s pumpkin pie. It’s got the spices, the subtle sweetness, and the mouthwatering tartness of a proper pumpkin treat. We were glad it came in a 4-pack. Great product!

Overall: 9/10

Mill Street Nightmare on Mill Street

Nightmare on Mill Street

We were missing the gourd in this one: it just wasn’t particularly pumpkin-y at all. Some pumpkin spices lifted it out of the general ale category, but it just didn’t have that oomph for us.

Overall: 5/10

Black Creek Pumpkin Ale

Black Creek Pumpkin Ale

We’ve had it twice, once in a recent bottle and another on draft at the Hamilton Beer Festival in August, and it was a vast difference. In the bottle, it had a slightly burnt taste, like when the edges of your pie get blackened. With all the sweet flavours too, that slightly burnt taste seemed a bit syrupy. On draft at the festival though, we found it flavourful and smooth, with a not-too-heavy pumpkin flavour. We’re averaging out our score, on the off-chance that we got a bad batch. 

Overall: 6/10

Beau’s Weiss O’Lantern

Beau's Weiss O'Lantern

Very light with just a little of that weiss-like cloudiness. Had a very distinctive tart pumpkin flavour, along with a sweeter flavour from the wheat. Unfortunately, neither flavour really complemented the other as much as we’d hoped, so we didn’t love this one. 

Overall: 5/10

Great Lakes Saison Dupump

Saison Dupump

A quality saison with a hint of uncooked pumpkin. The tang of the saison with the fresh, vegetal taste of raw pumpkin worked really well together. Like a blend of summer and fall flavours, appropriate for either season. 

Overall: 8/10

*Pumpkin patch photo from: 
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bake_these_(pumpkins_in_Toronto).jpg