You ever have one of those ideas that seems really good at the time? Like, let’s drop these broken speakers down a flight of stairs, or let’s jump into the mosh pit at a Machinehead concert, or let’s see if we can lure that deer into the car? You have ideas like that, right?
Just last weekend, in fact, I thought it would be a good idea to invite two of my best friends to Manhattan to taste-test a whole load of Russian Imperial Stouts. If you’re not familiar with the style, it’s characterized by high ABVs and huge chocolate, coffee and malt flavors (often balanced with a hefty dose of hops). The name is a misnomer — contrary to popular belief, the first Russian Imperial was actually brewed in England. They’re called Russian Imperial Stouts because of their original clientele, the court of Catherine II.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: That doesn’t sound so bad. Great beer, best friends, Manhattan in the fall…what’s wrong with any of that?
That’s just my point. These ideas always seem good at the time.
The problem is that Russian Imperials Stouts are monstrous brews. Really, really monstrous. The roasty, toasty Barrel Roll No. 3 Pugachev’s Cobra, for instance, brewed by Hangar 24, clocks in at 15.8% ABV. That’s the equivalent of four Bud Lights. I don’t care how booze resilient you think you are — when you try and drink ten Russian Imperial Stouts in one weekend, you’re going to feel like shit.
Although they’re heavy and typically expensive, Russian Imperial Stouts push the flavor intensity spectrum, offering a look at the sultry, heady, muscly side of beer. For those willing to experiment, they offer a variety of smells, flavors and textures found in few other styles of beer. From my own experience, I’d say that if you’re going to try them, don’t make it a marathon. Give them the credit that they deserve. Savor every sip.
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Stone Imperial Russian Stout
Easiest to Acquire Without Selling Your Firstborn Child: You’re looking for something smooth, something chocolatey, something you can find without traveling to a hole-in-the-wall, underground beer emporium three states away. You’re looking for the endlessly delicious, endlessly accessible Stone Imperial Russian Stout. Hailing from the Stone Brewery, the largest in Southern California and #1 on Beer Advocate’s “All Time Top Breweries on Planet Earth” list, the Imperial Russian Stout is, like most Russian Imperials, released just before winter. Despite 10.5% ABV, one can easily identify subtle flavors of black currant, dark coffee and chocolate.
Oskar Blues Ten FIDY
Best Beer from a Can: Beer in a can? The uninitiated sneer; the aficionados smile. If you’ve tried Heady Topper, currently the highest rated beer of all time on Beer Advocate, you know that beauty can come in an aluminum package. Ten FIDY, which contains notes of milk chocolate and dark fruit, further proves the point. It’s one of the meanest, darkest canned treats around. Of course, Oskar Blues has had plenty of time to master the metal arts: when they started in 1997, they were the first American craft brewery to can their beer. Today, over 150 craft breweries have followed their lead. Drink this out of the can by itself, or, for a slightly blasphemous, alternate flavor, Google “Oskar Blues chili recipes”.
Great Lakes Blackout Stout
Best For Everyday Drinking: Had we our druthers, we would have tried the Great Lakes Barrel Aged Blackout Stout…though the regular, more accessible Blackout Stout is no slouch. It offers drinkable chocolate and coffee flavors in a creamy, well-balanced package. Best of all, the 9% ABV Blackout Stout is less imposing than heavier options, making it (slightly) less dangerous for everyday drinkers. It should be mentioned that we’re big fans of the Cleveland, OH, brewery’s other selections, all of which are brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, a purity law from 1516 which says that the only ingredients that can be used in beer production are water, barley, and hops.
Cigar City Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout
Most Likely to Inspire Dreams of Chocolate: How did one of the country’s best breweries (it currently has a perfect “100” rating on Beer Advocate) end up in Tampa, Florida? Cigar City produces many questions, but their Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout answers one as well: what would it be like to drink Willy Wonka’s Chocolate River? While this beer contains the characteristic chocolate and coffee notes of other Russian Imperials, it also contains a unique “marshmallow” flavor and texture. That’s not the only thing unique about this beer — knowing that heavy beers get better with age, Cigar City releases it in the summer. For some reason, they have the expectation that we won’t drink it until winter. Yeah, right.
Hoppin’ Frog B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher Oatmeal-Imperial Stout
Best Combination of Disparate Ingredients: Hoppin’ Frog B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher, or Barrel-Aged Boris? That is the question. At the end of the day, we chose to include The Crusher, which is a little easier to find, on our list. Contrary to the name, the beer is actually quite balanced, with notes of coffee, toffee, sweet chocolate and smooth, smooth oats. If you’re looking for something to do during your next trip to Akron, Ohio, the Hoppin’ Frog brewery is the place to be. In addition to the two dozen beers they keep on tap, they offer a delicious gourmet menu.
North Coast Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin XV
As it turns out, they’re pretty damn similar. Today the only difference (and it’s a shifty one) is that porters use primarily malted barley and stouts use primarily unmalted roasted barley. The two terms originated simultaneously in 18th century England, where the word “stout” simply referred to a strong porter. Check out this excerpt from “A General Dictionary of Commerce, Trade and Manufactures”, published in 1810: “Porter may be divided into two classes, namely brown-stout and porter properly so called… Brown-stout is only a fuller-bodied kind of porter than that which serves for ordinary drinking.”
Best Example of a Great Beer Made Better: You know the story of Grigori Rasputin, right? A wandering Russian pilgrim, he became a favorite among the Russian court (the Tsarina, in particular) for purportedly healing the young Tsaverich, Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia. Later, he was assassinated, though it took several tries: after surviving several cyanide-laced petit fours, he was shot, clubbed, and dumped into the icy Malaya Nevka River. Because of his legendary heartiness, North Coast appropriated his name for their silky sweet Russian Imperial Stout. Now, what happens when you take this beer — one of the tastiest, highest-rated Russian Imperial Stouts on earth — and age it in bourbon barrels? You get Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin, a sweet combination of bourbon and bittersweet chocolate that’s impossibly more delicious and paradoxically more drinkable than its incredible younger brother.
Bell’s Expedition Stout
Best To Cellar For Years to Come: In 1985, Larry Bell began selling beer from his home-brewing supply shop, the Kalamazoo Brewing Company, using a 15-gallon soup kettle. Today, the brewery — now called Bell’s — has the capacity to produce 500,000 barrels per year. They were one of the first American Craft breweries to produce a Russian Imperial Stout, and it’s a winner: drink it fresh, and you’ll get a bitterness that masks the beer’s subtleties, but cellar it, and, like a fine wine, the beer opens, revealing notes of char, espresso, and chocolate. Do you have the willpower? Luckily, Bell’s sells the Expedition in six-packs, so you can drink three now and save three for later.
Founders Imperial Stout
Smoothest: You’ve had the Breakfast Stout. You want the Kentucky Breakfast Stout, though, as a tattooed salesman at a North Carolina beer store once told me, “You’re gonna have to kick a woman in the c*** if you want a bottle of that.” KBS it’s not, but the Imperial Stout combines notes of dark chocolate, roast coffee and dark fruit to carve out a place for itself among the best of Russian Imperial Stouts. How can a 10.5% ABV be so drinkable? It’s a question I ask every time this beer crosses my lips. In fact, it’s very nearly too easy to knock back. Based on its flavor profile you can tell that it’s closely related to the brilliant Breakfast Stout; however, it lacks its cousin’s alcoholic warmth. Oh Founders! How consistently you deliver.
Lift Bridge Barrel-Aged Silhouette
Best Choice for a Cold Winter Night Beside the Fire: “Black as a moonless night” is how Stillwater, MN-based Lift Bridge Brewery describes this limited edition release, and we agree. Though the fluffy head pours mocha, the beer itself is opaque, even when held to the light. Prepare your nose and palette for chocolate, bourbon and char. Like most top-tier Russian Imperials, this one masks its 10% ABV, though you feel it in your chest after the swallow. “Drinkable,” I wrote in my notes, and then wrote it again… not because I was drunk, but because it goes down smooth.
Hangar 24 Barrel Roll No. 3 Pugachev’s Cobra
Editor’s Choice: We managed to get bottle of the 2012 vintage from Hangar 24 (which just unveiled their new logo — isn’t it pretty?), hand numbered 2,034 out of 5,360. It knocked us on our asses. Unlike other alcoholic beers, which warm your chest, this 15.8% ABV monster punches you right in the sinuses. Somehow, the flavors still come through: chocolate, oak, bourbon, plum and a welcome dose of sweet maple syrup.
Bonus Beer: Brooklyn Black Ops
The One You Can’t Have…And Now You Want It Even More: Thanks to some well-timed hoarding, we managed to get our hands on a bottle of Brooklyn Black Ops (#2940). The effort proved well worth the hassle though, as the rare Imperial Stout delivers. Aged four months in Woodford Reserve barrels (they had us at Wood…) and re-fermented with Champagne yeast, Black Ops is silken in its mouthfeel. On the tongue dark chocolate dominates along with, a bit of anise, vanilla, toffee and a toasted malt finale. A 11.3% ABV means there’s stealthy punch, but with cooler weather upon us, we’d be happy to brave the mission of drinking more. That is, if we could find more of the damn stuff.
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