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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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