Although Budweiser may have declared itself the “King of Beers” (really??) when it comes to craft beers and the beer styles which have been brewed for many more years, Russian Imperial Stout is the undisputed king of ales.
Big bold flavors, a higher strength and a lineage which goes back to the days of the Russian nobility really makes this a beer worthy of the most avid homebrewers.
Just like an India Pale Ale was never brewed in India, the Russian Imperial Stout didn’t originate from Russia.
Necessity meant English brewers produced IPAs with a higher ABV and more hops added to prevent spoilage during the long sea journeys to India.
However, the Imperial Russian stout was born more from a desire for a stronger bolder version of the British porters and stouts by the Russian nobility in the 19th Century.
Even Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, was said to be a huge devotee of the style and regularly placed large orders for shipments of the Imperial Stouts to the Russian court.
Sure, the extra hops and bumped-up ABV may have helped prevent a batch of beer from spoilage during the colder journeys over the Baltic seas to Russia, but an Imperial Stout is a more complex beer than just a hopped-up, stronger version of a Stout.
Other British beers like the Burton Ale were regularly making longer journeys to further afield destinations like the Americas and India without the need for Imperial or extra hopped versions, so why did the stouts need this?
A Russian Imperial Stout is one which just feels decadent, something the Russian Court was keen to explore (more expensive too, which is always good when wanting to show off your wealth and power!).
Brewing an Imperial Stout at home can be quite challenging – a Russian Imperial isn’t your average everyday beer. You need to properly prepare yourself.
Prepare to go big with a huge grain bill in all-grain recipes and prepare for a long brew day. Patience is key when brewing a Russian Imperial Stout, and the longer you can leave it to age, the more that complex flavor profile will develop.
Although some Russian Imperial Stouts have been known to mature for up to nearly half a century, there’s not quite the need for that when brewing at home, but up to a year maturing will lend your Russian Imperial Stout some much more interesting complexities of flavor.
Let’s take a look at exactly what you should be aiming for with a Russian Imperial Stout as we offer some tips on how to achieve the perfect version.
I’ll also offer up a couple of my favorite Imperial Stout beer recipes, although this style of beer is one you can easily experiment with by adding a mini-mash of specialty and dark grains to an extract brew for added depth, or by adding a few more choice malts to an all-grain brew.
Tips for Brewing a Russian Imperial Stout
Brewing a Russian Imperial Stout is certainly within the realms of most homebrewers, although it’s not a brew I would recommend as your first ever homebrew – try and get 4 or 5 brews under you belt before attempting this more challenging style of beer.
The Grain Bill
The ingredient list for a Russian Imperial Stout can often be quite long.
Like most modern beers, the base malt starts with a 2-row pale malt, and, needing a higher starting gravity for this style, there should be plenty of it (a minimum of 15 pounds for a 5 gallon batch of beer).
Although we are looking for a higher starting gravity don’t be too tempted to go to much above 1.100, as it will add very little in the way of flavor but can make it harder to ferment out, and often leaves the kind of fusel alcohols which will have you breathing fire.
The 2-row malt will make up about 80% – 85% of the total grist, but chocolate malts and roasted malts like roasted barley will make up most of the core flavors in a Russian Imperial Stout and should make up about 5%- 8% of the total grain bill each.
Black patent malt can also be used to add more complexity to the stout, but avoid it making up over 4% of the grist as the beer may become too astringent.
In addition to the dark malts, I like to add some specialty malts that contribute to the body and the mouthfeel.
Flaked oats, caramel malt or dark crystal malts can all add to the body of the final beer while also giving an additional level of flavor complexity.
Some of the ward-winning homebrew Imperial Stout recipes have even been known to add Belgian specialty brown malts such as Special B, which is similar to Crystal 150
The addition of adjuncts like coffee, for notes of coffee in the final beer, or cacao nibs are extremely common, as are many other ways of infusing more of a chocolate flavor. There are Imperial Milk Stouts, Fruited Imperial Stouts, Mexican Hot Chocolate-inspired Stouts which make use of dried chilies, too, and even the occasional Sour Stout.
This is one recipe where adding a little bit of everything isn’t going to do too much harm.
Just, once you have decided on a flavor, ensure you add enough of each that it’s contribution will be noticeable through that high level of base malt.
Again, with a Russian Imperial Stout you are going to need a lot of hops to balance that huge amount of grain in the recipe.
You may not be sending your Imperial Stout on a long sea journey to Russia but for their contribution to be noticeable you will have to up the hop content.
As the focus of this style is the dark malt flavors, try using high alpha acid hops that don’t have too much of a distinctive flavor, like Magnum, Kent Goldings, Galena or Northern Brewer hops.
The bulk of the hops will be added at the beginning of the boil for bittering, with only half the quantity of hops added during the boil and at the end of the boil for flavor.
Adding too many hops later in the boil for extra flavors and aroma won’t give too much of a return as the longer ageing time and shelf life of an Imperial Stout will cause many of those flavors to fade.
You’ll need to choose a yeast which has a high alcohol tolerance, but also the yeast should be clean fermenting as the malt flavors will be the ones that shine through.
I have previously used traditional English yeasts with a clean ester character, Irish yeast, and American yeast with success.
if you are going for more of an authentic beer in the style of the older English-brewed Russian Imperials, White Labs WLP002 (English Ale), White Labs WLP007 (Dry English Ale), Wyeast 1968 (London ESB), and Wyeast 1028 (London Ale) would all be good choices.
For the bigger, hoppier versions of an American-style Russian Imperial Stout, a White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or a Fermentalis Safale US-05 dried yeast are common choices.
Although the high level of alcohol tolerance of Belgian yeast can be tempting, many will give flavors that compete with that malt backbone.
There are a few Belgian yeasts which can ferment quite cleanly with an elevated pitching rate and good temperature control, such as Wyeast 1762 (Belgian Abbey), which Wyeast recommend as their choice for a Russian Imperial Stout.
Whatever yeast you choose, it’s recommended to pitch an adequate yeast starter for the larger grain bill. A healthy yeast starter for a 5-gallon (19L) batch of Imperial Stout would fall between 2.9 – 7.0 qt (2.7 – 6.6L).
The smaller size would be for a lower ABV Russian Imperial Stout (about 9-10% alcohol) while the largest size would be for those strongest versions of Imperial Stout, between 12% – 15% ABV.
Before you pitch the yeast, you should thoroughly aerate the wort before fermentation starts. Keep in mind the higher starting gravity of this beer can dramatically increase the fermentation temperature from the heat generated by the yeast action.
You may think your fermentation is quite happily bubbling away at about 68ºF, but in reality the internal temperature of your brew might be closer to 80ºF, producing sharp fusel alcohols and other unwanted flavors.
One of the best ways of preventing this is to ferment your stout in a temperature-controlled brew chamber or refrigerator set at about 65ºF.
If you don’t have access to a temperature-controlled environment you should try to ferment the stout in a room with an ambient temperature around the 60ºF mark.
The Mash and Sparge
The higher levels of grain can be hard to handle for most average homebrew systems. if your mash tun isn’t large enough to hold the 20 plus pounds of grain, you could always substitute light dry malt extract for some of the 2-row malt.
Use a ratio of 0.65 pounds dry extract for each pound of grain you remove. The malt extract can be added after the sparge as the wort is being heated to a boil.
Another option would be to do the mash in two halves. If possible, you can step the mash, but if you do a single stage mash you should be aiming for a temperature range between 152ºF – 158ºF for a least 90 minutes.
Patience is the key with this high grain mash, the run-off and the sparge. It’s going to be a slow run-off, and there’s a danger of a stuck run-off as the grain bed may collapse.
Adding rice hauls to the mash can help to prevent any possible collapse.
You could also Vorlauf for the first 20 minutes of the run-off to help in setting the grain bed and clearing the run-off liquid of any bits of grain which may have made it through the grain bed (to Vorlauf is to catch the first runnings of the run-off liquid and gently sprinkle back over the top of the grain bed).
The sparge should also be slow – it’s not a race and will probably take at least an hour. The slower you take it, the less likely you are going to have to deal with the problem of a stuck run-off.
The Russian Imperial Stout Recipe
Below are two of my favorite recipes for brewing a Russian Imperial Stout.
I have included an all-grain version which adds some Black patent malt for added malt complexity and an extract version which is a clone of the hugely popular Old Rasputin Imperial Stout by North Coast Brewing.
A Russian Imperial Stout All-Grain Recipe
|5 Gallons (19L)
- 15 lbs (6.8kg) 2-row pale malt
- 1.2 lbs (0.57kg) British Crystal Malt (77ºL)
- 0.5 lbs (0.23kg) black malt
- 0.5 lbs (0.23kg) British chocolate malt
- 0.25 lbs (113g) roasted barley
- 1 lb (0.45 kg) demerara sugar
- 8AAU Summit hops (60 minutes) (0.5oz/14g at 16% Alpha acids)
- 1.5 oz East Kent Goldings hops (0 minutes)
Yeast and Nutrients
- Wyeast 1968 (London ESB), White Labs WLP002 (English Ale) or Lallemand London ESB Ale yeast
- 1/2 tsp Yeast nutrient (add at 10 minutes from end of boil.)
- Adjust your brewing water by adding calcium chloride until it reaches a 2:1 chloride/sulfate ratio.
- Mill the grains and mix with 5.5 gallons of water (20.7 L) and heat to 122 ºF (50ºC) and hold for 10 minutes. Raise the temperature to 157ºF (68ºC) and hold for a further 45 minutes before mashing out at 170ºF (77ºC). If you prefer a single infusion mash infusion you can mix the grains with 5.5 gallons of strike water heated to 165ºF (74ºC) to reach a mash temperature of 152ºF (67ºC) for 60 minutes.
- Proceed to Vorlauf and sparge with enough water to collect 7 gallons of wort (26.5 L) and stir in the Demerara sugar until it is fully dissolved.
- Bring to the boil for 90 minutes adding the bittering Summit hops at the 60-minute stage, the yeast nutrient at 10 minutes, and the East Kent Golding hops at flame out.
- Chill wort to about 65ºF (18ºC) and aerate with pure oxygen or filtered air before you pitch yeast in a 4.5-L yeast starter. The wort density should be rather heavy with an OG of about 1.091 to 1.100.
- Initial fermentation temperatures for the first 7 days should hover around the 66ºF (19ºC) point but it’s ok for it to rise until about 70ºF (21ºC) until the primary fermentation is complete.
- Upon a complete fermentation, rack the beer into a secondary vessel for the longer conditioning times. I find this Imperial Stout recipe responds well to ageing in a 5 gallon pasteurised white oak Bourbon barrel, but if you can’t get hold of an oak barrel you could always add some Bourbon soaked medium toasted oak chips to a secondary fermenter. Use about 1oz of oak chips per 5 gallons of stout.
- Age for not less than 6 months at an ambient cellar temperature of 52ºF (11ºC).
- When ageing is complete bottle using 10g/L of dextrose and 1.2M cells/L of either Lalvin EC1118 yeast or Lallemand CBC-1 to referment in the bottle.
Old Rasputin Clone Partial Extract Recipe
|5 GALLONS (19L)
- 10.6 lbs (4.8kg) Maris Otter liquid malt extract
- 1 lb (0.45kg) British Light Crystal Malt (35ºL)
- 1 lb (0.45kg) crystal malt
- 0.5 lb (0.23kg) brown malt
- 0.5 lb (0.23kg) chocolate malt
- 0.25 lb (0.113kg) roasted barley
- 22.75 AAU Nugget hops (60 minutes) (1.75 oz (50g) at 13% Alpha Acids)
- 1 oz (28g) Northern Brewer hops (0 minutes)
- 1oz (28g) Centennial hops (0 minutes)
Wyeast 1007 (German Ale), White Labs WLP036 (Düsseldorf Alt) or Safale K-97 dried yeast
- bring 5.5 gallons (20.4L) of strike water to approximately 162ºF (72ºC) and hold before steeping the grains in a sanitized muslin bag for 15 minutes.
- Remove the grains bag from the wort after the 15 minutes while allowing any excess water to drain into the wort. Add the liquid extract while constantly stirring until fully dissolved.
- Bring to the boil for 60 minutes adding the hops as per the schedule above and any Irish moss if using.
- After boiling, chill the wort down to slightly below the fermentation temperature (63ºF/17ºC) and aerate the wort with pure oxygen or filtered air before pitching the yeast starter.
- Ferment at a temperature of about 64ºF (18ºC) for the first 7 days before allowing it to rise to 70ºF (21ºC) for the rest of the primary fermentation.
- Once the primary fermentation is complete, transfer to a secondary fermentation for the ageing process for 6 weeks minimum at a cellar temperature of 32ºF (0ºC).
- After 6 weeks ageing bottle or keg the beer and carbonate to approximately 2.25 volumes.