Fit for royalty
Imperial beers are back—darker and stronger than ever before
Belgian ales and barleywines have been handed much credit as the shining stars of the gourmet beer craze in America. They’re flavorful yet easy to drink, and they cordially welcome even rookie drinkers into the highest echelon of craft beer appreciation. But on the far side of the room, in the shadows, there dwells an entirely different creature.
Black as pitch, thick as tar and not always nice, this beer has gone unknown and unseen by most casual drinkers who seek lighter shades of brew. Yet the first sip of an Imperial stout draws many people helplessly into the darkest realms of the craft beer movement, where, once you get used to it, things taste quite good.
Meanwhile, the rising popularity of Imperial stouts has spurred the growth of a whole new category of craft beer—the Imperials—which comprises modified versions of many common beer styles. Anything, really, can have “Imperial” tagged on its label; it simply means “bigger, stronger and better.” These strong beers can age and mature like wine, and old Imperial stouts and Imperial porters are especially revered; beers of four, five, six years and more may attain a sweet, almost sour molasses character not present at bottling.
These are special-occasion beers to be savored—and beer aficionados brazenly boast that they pair more gracefully than most wines with foods like cheese, mousse and chocolate.
So where have these beers been all our lives? Clinging to existence in small brewpubs or chilling in the specialty beer aisle of fancy liquor stores. Yet, there was a time that the Imperial stout was all the rage in Europe. This beer was the first of the Imperial category, originally brewed in Britain about 300 years ago explicitly for Peter the Great of the royal imperial court in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Peter had recently traveled in England, where the nation’s stouts and porters mightily impressed him, and upon returning home he sent a request back to the island for a shipment of dark beer. It arrived in due time—spoiled in the casks after the long sea voyage over the Baltic. Britain was notified that its beers were too feeble to survive such a journey, and so Barclay Brewery in London stepped forward with the idea of upping the alcohol level. This, presumably, would fortify the beer against spoilage and thereby quell any more angry phone calls from livid Russian importers with a bad batch of beer in the warehouse and a thirsty czar down the block raising Cain.
And it did the trick, for the second batch of Russian stout arrived in prime condition and enough potency in a bottle to not only preserve the beer but floor a wolverine. About twice the strength as a traditional stout, the new Russian version also packed a punch of flavor that Guinness could never dream of matching, and the Russians dug it. The czar demanded more, his successors acquired the taste, and the style took on the name Russian Imperial stout, a majestic label that sings justice to the beer’s profound blackness and its fireplace-warm finish.
But by the 1900s, the beer began to lose popularity, both in Russia and in England, and in the 1960s, the style fell by the wayside in Russia. In the 1990s, Courage Brewery, one of England’s oldest producers of Russian Imperial stout, quit production. The famed Samuel Smith’s carried on making the beer, but otherwise the style lingered as a specialty product of primarily American micro-breweries.
The big, black titan has surged back into popularity, and with no czars to impress, brewers today have the liberty to fool around with the style. They age their specimens in bourbon barrels, add oatmeal, chocolate and fruit, and bring the alcohol level up to more than 20 percent by volume (ABV). Imperial stouts also have inspired knockoffs. Imperial porters, virtually the same beverage, just a little less body, have been around for decades, but in 1994, Blind Pig Brewing Co. in Southern California brewed what is considered by many to be the first Imperial, or Double, IPA, now a fairly standard microbrew.
Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., features a line called the XS series. It consists of a barleywine, Imperial Stout, Imperial IPA and Imperial Red Ale, the newest of the family that deploys a toffee-soft mouthful of dark, dried fruits, chocolate, flowery hops and lively carbonation. Each specimen of the XS series comes in a black ceramic 750 ml bottle—the sexiest in the biz and able to stand in for a wine bottle any day on the whitest of lace tablecloths.
“Beer is the new wine,” says Rogue founder and CEO Jack Joyce. “The wine industry did a tremendous job in educating people about food pairing, and restaurateurs led the way in thinking that drinking beer is pedestrian and sloppy.”
Mark Simpson, corporate president and brewer of our own Butte Creek Brewing Co., believes big beers are here to stay.
“People are tired of drinking Budweiser. They want a beer that’s flavorful and intriguing, and these big beers are exactly that. They’re a real food experience. You open up a bottle of one of these, and it’s a treat, a special occasion. Life’s too short to drink bad beer.”
Dogfish Head Brewery of Delaware is famed for its wild innovations in fermenting things, and its “extreme beers” walk a fine line between extravagant elegance and insanity. The company’s renowned 120-Minute IPA, for example—call it a quintuple IPA or sextuple IPA, if you like—is among the most powerful on Earth, at 120 international bitterness units and 20 percent ABV.
Samuel Adams, another leader in making unusual beers, brews one called Utopias, 27 percent ABV, the strongest beer in the world and more than $120 for a bottle. Samuel Adams’ Triple Bock, however, is just several dollars for a 9-ounce bottle, and although the 18-percent beverage looks like crude oil, it’s absolutely brimming with magnificent flavor. There’s sherry, fudge, raisins, dried figs and perhaps a subtle hint of beer. It pours a little like molasses, so it’ll take a while to fill a tumbler if you’ve left your bottle in the fridge.
The history of Imperial beers continues to unravel as craft brewers skirmish to make the most outlandish things they can. Yet, among strong beers, there are plenty of relics and retro-styles available that are both charismatic yet traditional. Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout is a tasty throwback to the brews that England first began importing to St. Petersburg. Idealistically simple, it runs 7 percent while still offering the layers of roasted sugar, maple and espresso that buffer the category from the common stout.
North Coast Brewing Co. makes Old Rasputin, 9 percent ABV, with warm lasting notes of coffee and sherry. And in St. Petersburg itself, the origin of it all, dwells Baltika, a brewery that makes a line of traditional Russian brews, including a delicious strong Porter, sturdy and stiff, yet soft and creamy.
Closer to home, try Butte Creek Brewery’s Revolution XI Imperial IPA. Certified organic, the 8.6-percent beer billows with aromas of sweet grain and citrus and floods the mouth with the tastes of honey oatmeal, grass, barley and flowery hops. Or share with a friend a 22-ouncer of the brewery’s organic barleywine—Trainwreck—a 10.6 percent ABV aromatic giant.
For extreme beers, America is where the heart is. But blessed be the global economy, for should the czar run low again in St. Petersburg, our own local craft brewers are just an e-mail away.