American imperialism

Craft brewers builda new age of empires

Belgian ales and barley wines have garnered a lot of 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 imbibers 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 one to play nice, this beer has gone unknown and unseen by most casual drinkers. 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 start getting really tasty.

The rising popularity of Imperial stouts has spurred the growth of a whole new category of craft beer—the Imperials—which includes modified versions of many common beer styles. Almost any beer, provided its alcohol content is above 7 percent or so, can have “Imperial” tagged on its label; it simply means “bigger,” “stronger” and, in the opinion of many experienced drinkers, “better.” But a higher alcohol level isn’t necessarily the goal of the brewers who make these beers; it’s just a pleasant side effect of going heavy on the malt and barley for the sake of aroma, flavor and general charisma, while providing sufficient alcohol to protect the beer against time. Thus, these beers can age—like a fine wine. Old Imperial stouts and Imperial porters are especially revered, with beers of four, five, six years and more attaining a sweet, almost sour molasses character not present at bottling. These are special-occasion beers to be savored—and advocates 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. Mr. “the Great” had recently traveled in England, whose stouts and porters mightily impressed him, and upon returning home sent a request back 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’s 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 messages from livid Russian importers with a bad batch of beer in the warehouse and a thirsty czar down the block raising Cain.

It did the trick. The second batch of Russian stout arrived in prime condition and with enough potency not only to preserve the beer but to floor a wolverine. With about twice the strength of a traditional stout, the new Russian version also packed a punch of flavor which Guinness couldn’t 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 most appropriate to the beer’s profound blackness and fireplace-warm finish. The Russian czars never cared to brew the beer themselves, ordering it instead from England, carbon footprint be damned. In the early 1900s, however, a hike of import taxes ended the commerce, and Russian breweries began to make the beer domestically. It lost popularity throughout the century, though, both there and in England. In the 1960s, the style fell by the wayside in Russia, and in the 1990s, Courage Brewery, one of England’s oldest producers of Russian Imperial stout, quit production. The famed Samuel Smith’s Brewery carried on making the beer, as did several other producers, but otherwise, the style lingered as a specialty product of primarily American microbreweries.

But the big black titan has surged back into popularity, and with no czars to impress, brewers today are at 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 over 20 percent alcohol by volume. (Your typical brewski clocks in at 3 to 7 percent ABV.) Imperial stouts have also inspired knockoffs. Imperial porter, virtually the same beverage with just a little less body, has been around for decades, and in 1994, Blind Pig Brewing Company in Southern California brewed what is considered by many to be the first Imperial, or Double, IPA, now a fairly standard microbrew. The same brewer, Vinnie Cilurzo, today owns Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, where he makes a Triple IPA. Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colo., famed for its rapacious beers which nearly defy definition, makes an Imperial Oktoberfest, a maple-sweet, lager-yellow beer of almost 10 percent ABV.

Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., features a line called the XS series. It consists of a barley wine, an Imperial stout, an Imperial IPA and an Imperial red ale—the newest of the family, which 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-mililiter bottle—the sexiest in the biz and able to stand in for a wine bottle 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. They never would have thought that a long beer list could be a way to actually enhance their restaurant’s image, but now a long wine list is no longer the foremost way to do that.”

Beers, especially strong ones, can meld like magic with food, Joyce says, especially cheese and chocolate. Unlike many wines, he explains, beer provides the effervescence to cleanse the palate between samples.

And besides, say boosters of brew, beer has far more flavor than wine, period. According to David Teckam, certified beer judge and member of the American Brewers Guild in Woodland, experts actually have gauged this, using the most sensitive instrument there is for detecting aromas and flavors: the nose. Beer has been linked to approximately 1,000 identifiable flavors and subtleties, wine only 600 to 700.

“The ingredient responsible for so many extra flavors is hops,” Teckam says. “With wine there’s only so much you can add, but beer is in a whole different ballpark in terms of the creativity it invites.”

Brewers today fiddle with beer like mad chemists. Avery makes a Belgian grand cru called The Beast. Its recipe includes raisins, dates, honey, blackstrap molasses and turbinado sugar, as well as malt and hops. Over $8 for a 12-ounce bottle, it runs 16 to 18 percent ABV. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery of Delaware is also famed for its innovations in fermenting things, and in almost all cases, the prevailing characteristic is a heightened alcohol content. The company’s renowned 120 Minute IPA, for example—call it a Quintuple IPA, if you like—is among the most powerful on Earth, at 120 International Bitterness Units and 20 percent ABV. Dogfish Head’s highly regarded World Wide Stout is 18 percent ABV, and barrel-aged versions have grown to 23 percent. Samuel Adams, another leader in unusual beers, brews one called Utopia, 27 percent ABV. Of course, it costs over $100 for a bottle, so you’ll probably never taste it.

Craft brewers skirmish to make the most outlandish things they can, yet plenty of relics and retro-styles remain both charismatic and reminiscent of actual beer. England’s Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout is a tasty throwback to the brews that Old Blighty first began exporting to St. Petersburg. A relatively mild 7 percent ABV, this idealistically simple product still offers the layers of roasted sugar, maple and espresso that distinguish Imperials from the common stouts. And in St. Petersburg itself, where it all began, dwells Baltika, a brewery that makes a line of traditional Russian brews, including a delicious strong Porter, sturdy and stiff, yet soft and creamy. Back in the States, North Coast Brewing Company, up in Fort Bragg, pays homage to the original Imperial stout with its Old Rasputin (9 percent ABV) with warm lasting notes of coffee and sherry, and certain to age for years.

Closer to home, have a go at San Francisco’s Shmaltz Brewing Company’s Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A., a rich breadlike beer of 10 percent ABV and a dose of rye. Or the Sacramento Brewing Company’s Russian Imperial Stout, on tap year-round and sold in 22-ounce bottles. And for something entirely, brand-spanking new, try Pyramid’s Imperial Hefeweizen, released in August of 2007. The brew carries the similar grainy essence and cloudy body of a traditional wheat beer, but with the heavy body and zesty fruit flavor of a strong Belgian ale.

For extreme beers, America is where the heart is. But blessed be the global economy, for should they run low again in St. Petersburg, local craft brews are just a Web click away—with enough flavor to seduce a despot and the strength to survive his rule.