NOTE: In the most recent 2021 BJCP Beer Style Guidelines Russian Imperial Stouts now fall under the Category 20C Imperial Stout. A subcategory of American Porter and Stout Category 20 it seems the Russian prefix has been dropped for competition purposes.
The BJCP goes on to state that generally these styles will be bigger, stronger, more roast-forward, and more hop-centric than their Anglo counterparts. However, many of the Imperial Stouts of the US are still labeled Russian in a nod to their historic heritage.
Although all the information below was correct at the time of writing, if you are studying for your BJCP judging exams we always recommend you should check out the BJCP website for the latest guidelines.
With the removal of the word “Russian” from the Imperial Stout classification, it may seem strange we still refer to it as A Russian Imperial Stout.
Is it the beer of choice of most Russians? Doubtful! Is it still brewed for export to the Russian market? Nowadays, that’s very doubtful too.
To be honest, most Imperial Stouts are brewed and consumed in the US where we have taken that bigger and bolder flavor defined by the term Imperial to other beer styles too.
Most of us American craft beer lovers are always looking for that bigger flavor and bolder beers, just look at the American IPA market.
So where does the term Russian Imperial Stout come from and what defines a beer as Imperial Stout according to the official Style guidelines of the BJCP?
History of Imperial Stouts
Just like that other favorite style of the US craft beer scene which originated from England, the IPA, there are many convoluted myths about the dubious history of how the Russian Imperial Stout was born.
One of the more popular myths involves Peter the Great’s well-documented visit to the UK in 1698, where he supposedly fell in love with the stout porter styles of beer of the time.
Unfortunately, the earliest known use of the term Porter for a dark beer is not recorded until around 1721, and stout followed shortly after to describe a strong Porter.
With Peter the Great dying in 1725 it’s very unlikely he ever tasted a “stout” let alone commissioned a batch of stout to be specially brewed and exported for the Russian court.
What is much more likely is that Russian Imperial Stouts were exported to the court of Empress Catherine the Great, who was a fan of the stronger British beer style and proudly boasted she could out-drink any Englishman.
Again, the style wasn’t to become known as a Russian Imperial Stout until long after the passing of Catherine the Great, a moniker which adorned bottles of Courage Imperial Russian Stout “brewed for the Empress Catherine the Great” until its demise in 1993.
Another romanticized myth is that the first batch of Russian Imperial Stout actually froze on its long ship journey from England to Russia. With an ABV of around 6%, the standard Porter of the time would have a freezing point of approximately 28ºF, with alcohol enjoying a lower freezing point than water.
Sure, bumping up the ABV would make the freezing point much lower but, as the ocean’s freezing point was also 28ºF due to its salinity, if temperatures had dropped to 28ºF, the ocean would have frozen too, making delivery all but impossible.
What is more likely is that, just like the IPA, some batches of beer would spoil on longer sea-faring journeys so the English brewers would add extra hops, a natural preservative agent, and increase the alcoholic strength of beers made for export.
Given the fact that many of the classic beer styles such as Porters were already being shipped abroad on much longer journeys to places like the Americas and India, there was little need to worry about the journey to Russia for these Porter beers.
A more likely theory for the need for stronger versions of stout arises from the Tsarist court, with money to spend, preferring the taste of these stronger (and hence more expensive) beers.
And where there’s a demand, a keen brewer will always try to meet that demand.
The First Imperial Stouts
The first true “Russian Imperial Stouts” were brewed by the Anchor Brewery of Southwark in London in the 1720s, which, under the ownership of Henry Thrale, was the first brewery to have shipped strong ales to the Baltic States (the Baltic Porter) and even the Russian Imperial Court.
Again, it would be easy to assume the “Imperial” part of the Russian Imperial Stout came from the known export of these beers to the Russian Imperial court, but beer retailers had been using the simple phrase Imperial to describe any stronger beer since the early 18th Century, and it wasn’t until the 1830s that brewers adopted the term Imperial for an Imperial Stout.
Brewers were also unlikely to have used the phrase “Russian” in conjunction with it due to the growing tensions with Russia which eventually culminated in the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856.
The first recorded usage of the phrase “Russian Stout” was from 1789 onwards, but the entire phrase “Russian Imperial Stout” wasn’t used until the 1970s, when Barclay Perkins Co Courage Russian Imperial Stout first debuted.
Although Anchor Brewery had been brewing Imperial Stouts since 1729, it didn’t become significantly more famous until the purchase of the brewery from Thales’ widow by Barclay Perkins & Co in 1781.
By this time, the demand for the British stouts by the Russian court was well-known, and in 1787 head brewer John Courage perfected the recipe for a delicious stout that captivated Catherine the Great.
The stouts exported by Barclay Perkins & Co had taken the whole Baltic region and Russia by storm with their higher alcohol and greater depth bringing a little more joy to the bitterly cold regions.
The discovery of the imported Imperial Stouts (called “Entires” at the time – a stronger stout) by Catherine the Great, and the large orders she placed for the Russian Imperial Court, ensured this style of beer and strong trade between Russia and England would carry on for many years with a name that would go down in history.
In 1822, Russia introduced a tariff banning all goods made from Britain, but, unsurprisingly, there was one exception – stouts and porters.
Some argue this was maybe due to Russian brewers being unable to recreate Porters and Stouts due to the local water profiles, but it enabled the Imperial Stout to grow and develop as a beer style.
Imperial Stout in the 20th Century
In Britain, by the time of the First World War, the Russian stout had been abandoned by most English brewers. However, some Baltic brewers sought to keep this style of beer alive and brewed their own Baltic Porters.
In Finland, Sinebrychoff, founded by a Russian, had debuted Koff Porter in 1819 before switching to lagers in 1853 but revived the intensely bitter dark roasted porter (7.2% ABV) in the 1950s.
Polish brewers also brewed Imperial Porters and Stouts in the early 20th Century but, by brewing with lager yeast, many of their beers lacked that powerful roast character.
Even the brewing giant of Denmark that is Carlsberg got in on the Imperial Stout market by producing the 7.5% ABV Gammel (old) Porter Imperial Stout.
In the UK, only Barclay Perkins kept the flag flying for Imperial Stouts, but after a merger with neighboring brewery Courage in 1955, the writing seemed to be on the wall for this historic beer.
The original plant in Southwark closed in 1982 and moved to John Smith’s of Tadcaster in Yorkshire. Although the Courage Imperial Russian Stout made odd fleeting appearances every couple of years in the 1980s and 90s, production of the original Russian Imperial Stout ceased in 1993.
The Rise of the Russian Imperial in the US
Like so many beer styles before it, the Imperial Stout had been imported into the US by many European immigrants in the late 19th Century.
However, the years of Prohibition virtually annihilated the style and its reemergence wouldn’t be helped by the omnipresence of the world global brand of stout, known as Guinness.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s and the beginning of the craft beer boom that interest in this beer style would be reignited.
Similar to what they did with the other forgotten style of an Oatmeal Stout (read our guide to Oatmeal Stouts here), Merchant du Vin of Seattle was intrigued by the history of this strongest version of stout, and commissioned the family rival of John Smiths in Tadcaster, Samuel Smith, to brew an Imperial Stout for export to the USA in the early 80s.
Although it took the American beer market a little while to adapt to the intense flavors of Imperial Stouts (they were originally seen as “winter seasonal” ales), as the ethos of extreme or Imperial beers took off, they grew in popularity.
The term Imperial in the American Craft beer market is applied to any stronger beer which is higher in alcohol and bigger in flavors such as an Imperial IPA, Imperial Stout, or Imperial Porter.
There are even Imperial Milk Stouts, Imperial Coffee Stouts, Mexican Hot Chocolate-inspired stouts, and Barrel-aged Imperial Stouts among the American-made Imperial Stouts that dominate the market.
It can be hard to exactly pinpoint when more Imperial Stouts began to appear on the American craft beer market, but beers like Stone Imperial Russian Stout, Founders Breakfast Stout, and Three Floyd’s Dark Lord were winning awards by the mid to late 1990s.
Today the bulk of Russian Imperial Stouts available worldwide are brewed in the USA with bolder, bigger, stronger flavors and aromas which are worthy of the competitive craft beer market here in the US, where bigger is often seen as better (just think IPA again!)
Imperial Stouts have also returned to the Baltic market, with many of the craft brewers there producing strong versions of stout as a winter specialty.
Although Baltic Porter exists as an official competition style in the BJCP Guidelines, Imperial Stouts, whether English, American, or Russian, simply fit under the current definition of Imperial Stout now (remember it never was Russian, just as an India Pale Ale was never Indian!).
BJCP Style Guidelines for an Imperial Stout
|50 - 90
|30 - 40
|1.075 - 1.115
|1.018 - 1.030
|8% - 12%
The color of a Russian Imperial will be more “stoutly” at the darker end of the spectrum, ranging from a darker, deep reddish brown to a jet black-like motor oil shade.
An opaque beer, it will normally form a good mocha or tan-colored head, but retention can be low.
The higher alcohol and viscosity of these Imperial Stouts can mean they often leave behind “legs” on the glass when the beer is swirled around.
Imperial Stouts have a rich and complex aroma with variable amounts of roasted grains, maltiness, fruity esters, hops, and alcohol, depending on the brewer’s whim and the recipe.
A 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.
Fruity esters can be low to strong, often reminiscent of dark fruits such as raisins. 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 to be present; many interpretations are possible.
Aging affects the intensity, balance, and smoothness of aromatics.
An Imperial Stout, just like any other “Imperial”, is all about the intense flavors. Complex and rich, the flavor can have variable amounts of roastiness, malt tones, hop bitterness or flavor, and fruit esters with undertones of alcohol.
Both that hop bitterness and the roastiness can range from moderate to quite high. Again, age will change the balance and intensity of an Imperial Stout’s flavor.
The roasted grains may show up as flavors of bittersweet chocolate and/or coffee with a hint of burnt grain or tarriness. Barrel-aged Imperial Stouts may also exhibit notes of oakiness or even bourbon, depending on the casks used.
Although there aren’t any specific hops recommended for this style, the hop flavoring can run from low to moderate, and in some more extreme American Imperial Stouts, quite high.
Care should be taken, however, that the hop flavors and bitterness don’t push it into the Black or Imperial Black IPA category.
Fruity esters will often come through in the taste of an Imperial Stout with a dark fruit character (raisins, prunes or plums are all common), and it can be low to high. The malt should be supportive but can often get close to a barleywine-like richness, with qualities of caramel and toast.
The finish is normally lingering and warming with a possible roastiness and hop bitterness. An Imperial Stout can be dry or moderately sweet, never cloying.
The mouthfeel of an Imperial Stout can be very full, velvety smooth, and almost chewy, but shouldn’t be too sweet or syrupy. The smooth, warming alcohol effect should add to the overall quality of the mouthfeel.
A low to moderate carbonation of the stout can often decrease with longer conditioning times, as can the body of the beer.
Characteristic ingredients of a Russian Imperial Stout will include pale malt with significant roasted malts or grains, and flaked adjuncts can be common too.
Yeasts can be American or English ale yeast just as the hops can be of any variety, American or English, even New World in some of the more modern Imperials.
Imperial Stouts tend to age very well and are often used as the base beer for many other specialty styles.
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