Russian Imperial Stout is a very strong version of a stout. It was originally brewed by British brewers to withstand the long journey to Russia and the Baltic area.
A Russian Imperial Stout is as big and bold as a stout gets. The style really has no upper limit on alcohol or hops, but the alcohol should not be harsh or “hot”.
When Peter the Great opened Russia to the rest of the world in the early part of the 18th century, the dark ales called Porter were extremely popular. Peter the Great visited England in 1698 and fell in love with the Porters brewed there. He liked them so much that he requested some be sent to the royal court in Russia.
You can probably guess what happened on the first attempt. Somewhere along the thousand-mile trip, the beer went bad. The English were thoroughly embarrassed. So, the Barclay brewery in London increased the alcohol content and hops. The resulting beer was opaque black with lots of warming alcohol and plenty of complexity after aging on the trip. The beer became a sensation all across Russia. Catherine the Great (1729-1796) liked the beer so much that she ordered huge volumes of the beer from a couple of different British breweries for her own consumption and that of her court.
Russian Imperial Stouts went the way of most dark ales when lagers arrived. The style was revived by Samuel Smith brewery in the early 1980s and has since been embraced by the craft beer movement in America. Russian Imperial Stouts are favorites of homebrewers who enjoy the bolder and stronger beers.
There are two key points to remember when brewing a RIS. Since these beers are high in alcohol, you must ensure that they attenuate enough to ensure they are not too sweet for the style. Although some versions are considered desert beers, making the beer too sweet and cloying is not appropriate. Another factor to keep in mind it that you must control the fermentation to ensure the beer doesn’t end up with harsh alcohols reminiscent of solvent. This beer benefits from long aging which will mellow and integrate the flavors and add to it’s complexity.
- Aroma: These beers are rich and complex, with variable amounts of roasted grains, maltiness, fruity esters, hops, and alcohol, depending on the brewer’s whim and the recipe. The roasted malt character often takes on coffee, dark chocolate, or slightly burnt flavors and can be light to moderately strong. The malt aroma can vary from subtle to rich and barleywine-like, depending on the gravity and grain bill. These beers may optionally show a slight specialty malt character (e.g., caramel), but this should only add complexity and not dominate. Fruity esters may be low to moderately strong, and may take on a complex, dark fruit (e.g., plums, prunes, raisins) character. Hop aroma can be very low to quite aggressive, and may contain any hop variety. An alcohol character may be present, but shouldn’t be sharp, hot or solventy. Aged versions may have a slight vinous or port-like quality, but shouldn’t be sour. No diacetyl should be noticed. The balance can vary with any of the aroma elements taking center stage. Not all possible aromas described need be present; many interpretations are possible. Aging affects the intensity, balance and smoothness of aromatics.
- Appearance: The color of a Russian Imperial Stout may range from very dark reddish-brown to inky black and opaque. They will exhibit a deep tan to dark brown well-formed head. Head retention may be low to moderate. High alcohol and viscosity may be visible in “legs” when beer is swirled in a glass.
- Flavor: The flavor is rich, deep, complex and frequently quite intense, with variable amounts of roasted malt/grains, maltiness, fruity esters, hop bitterness and flavor, and alcohol. It is medium to aggressively high in bitterness with a medium-low to high hop flavor (any variety). You will find a moderate to aggressively high roasted malt/grain flavors that can suggest bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate, cocoa, and/or strong coffee. A slightly burnt grain, burnt currant or tarry character may be evident. Fruity esters may be low to intense, and can take on a dark fruit character (raisins, plums, or prunes). The malt backbone can be balanced and support a rich and barleywine-like impression, and may optionally show some supporting caramel, bready or toasty flavors. Alcohol strength should be evident, but not hot, sharp, or solventy. No diacetyl should be noticed. The palate and finish can vary from relatively dry to moderately sweet, usually with some lingering roastiness, hop bitterness and warming character. The balance and intensity of flavors can be affected by aging, with some flavors becoming more subdued over time and some aged, vinous or port-like qualities developing.
- Mouthfeel: RIS are full to very full-bodied and chewy, with a velvety, luscious texture (although the body may decline with long conditioning). Gentle smooth warmth from alcohol should be present and noticeable. These beers should not be syrupy (an indication that the beer is under-attenuated). Carbonation may be low to moderate, depending on age and conditioning.
- Overall Impression: This is an intensely flavored, big, dark ale with roasty, fruity, and bittersweet notes and a noticeable alcohol presence. Dark fruit flavors mix with roasty, burnt, or almost tar-like nuances. Like a black barleywine with every dimension of flavor coming into play.
- Comments: Variations of this beer exist, with English and American interpretations (predictably, the American versions have more bitterness, roasted character, and finishing hops, while the English varieties reflect a more complex specialty malt character and a more forward ester profile). The wide range of allowable characteristics allow for a lot of creativity from the brewer.
- Ingredients: Well-modified pale malt, with generous quantities of roasted malts and/or grain. May have a complex grain bill using virtually any variety of malt. Any type of hops may be used. Alkaline water balances the abundance of acidic roasted grain in the grist. American or English ale yeast.
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.075 – 1.115 FG: 1.018 – 1.030 IBUs: 50 – 90 SRM: 30 – 40 ABV: 8 – 12%.
- Commercial Examples: Three Floyd’s Dark Lord, Bell’s Expedition Stout, North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout, Stone Imperial Stout, Samuel Smith Imperial Stout, Scotch Irish Tsarina Katarina Imperial Stout, Thirsty Dog Siberian Night, Deschutes The Abyss, Great Divide Yeti, Southampton Russian Imperial Stout, Rogue Imperial Stout, Bear Republic Big Bear Black Stout, Great Lakes Blackout Stout, Avery The Czar, Founders Imperial Stout, Victory Storm King, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
References: Information for this article was adapted from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, and Brewing Classic Styles 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, written by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, the article Imperial Dining – Russian Imperial Stout from the website www.alexanderpalace.org.