The dark art of imperial stouts
The imperial stout was born of overseas transactions between England and Russia more than two centuries ago, when extra alcohol fermented into the beer provided the anti-freeze measures needed to get the beer across the Baltic Sea without turning to slush or ice and, in doing so, bursting from its barrels.
Those first imperial stouts were probably something along the lines of what we still see from the UK’s Samuel Smith Old Brewery, whose toasty and rich imperial stout runs 7 percent alcohol by volume and is smooth and creamy on the tongue. It remains a popular beer (and is one of my favorites).
That classic beer also comes off as something of a dwarf in the spectrum of modern versions of the style. There may be no other imperial stout on the market with such a modest ABV as Samuel Smith’s. Indeed, the style—along with its close cousin the imperial porter—has become a playground and laboratory for almost maniacal, evil-scientist brewing experiments that test the limits of alcohol-making yeasts and the palates of beer drinkers. Many super-stouts are aged in bourbon barrels, a once-innovative practice (that can add vanilla and coconut flavors to the mix) that has, by now, become almost standard treatment for the strongest beers.
The strength of some imperial stouts and porters is unnerving. One of the strongest fermented beers (as opposed to those enhanced via distillation) is the World Wide Stout, an oak-aged vanilla-bean-infused offering from Dogfish Head Brewery. The beer runs 16 percent to 20 percent ABV, depending on the year (the yeast isn’t always in the mood to take it to the max), and is generally served and consumed with a level of caution and respect, rather like brandy.
Many breweries promote their imperial stouts as some sort of expression of evil. I get it—the beers are dark in color, and you can follow the metaphors forward from there. In Munster, Ind., 3 Floyds Brewing Co. calls its Dark Lord Russian Style Imperial Stout “demonic,” and the label features a hellish-looking warrior. This 15 percent ABV beer has drawn a dedicated cult following. The pitch-black brew is apparently named after the devil and it’s super strong—so, there you have it. Fans clamor for tickets to the annual Dark Lord Day, a beer fest where attendees listen to heavy metal music and enjoy the worshiped stout as well as sought-after brews from other craft brewers. It would not surprise me if bottles of this imperial stout are treated by especially devout followers as a sort of pagan idol.
Avery Brewing Co., in Colorado, bills its Mephistopheles Stout with similar themes and shadows. The immensely strong beer—it has been taken as high as nearly 17 percent—is tar black, fruity and sweet, and, though flavorful, not super easy to drink. (I’ve tried it.) It is part of the brewery’s Demons of Ale series. Go figure.
In Chico, Sierra Nevada’s seasonal rendition of the style (on shelves now) plays off a different dark metaphor. The brewery’s excellent yet comparatively “tame” 10.2 percent ABV version is still an impressive beast—specifically a Narwhal, “the mysterious creature that thrives in the deepest fathoms of the frigid Arctic Ocean.”
Christian Kazakoff, brewer at Iron Springs Pub & Brewery in Fairfax, says the strongest beer he’s made is his Compulsory triple IPA. “I hit 12.5 percent a couple years back.”
In the realm of imperial stouts, however, Kazakoff says he has made a few stronger than 10 percent—“but not in years.”
However, Kazakoff says he enjoys the wildly strong imperial stouts—a very worthy opinion from a man who is also outspokenly fond of low-alcohol craft lagers. Recently, he says, he drank a bottle of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s Coconut Rye Parabola. The 12 percent ABV beer is aged in rye whiskey barrels with coconut, and he said it’s “scary drinkable delicious.
“Thank god it was only 12 ounces,” he added.