Nick Carr on May 1, 2015 7 Comments History of Imperial Stouts Perhaps, it all started with a request. On a 1698 trip to England, Peter the Great is said to have tasted of a black nectar called stout, and upon first sip, he immediately had fallen in love. He wanted much to imbibe in this new found love even when he returned home to Czarist Russia, so he requested that some be sent to the Imperial court. The London brewers quickly realized that their wares spoiled during the voyage, and so, much like the IPA heading for India, hops and alcohol were heaped to help the stout weather the long journey ahead. If the above tale is true, Peter the Great must have been getting in on the ground floor of the dark beer revolution. Porters originated in the early 1720s and the first use of stout as a beer descriptor is documented as 1677, meaning the “stout” Peter the Great drank on that trip may have been a stout, but not as we know it today. The general consensus is that stout beers are a branch off the porter family tree. This would put the origins of stout beer somewhere after 1720. The descriptor “stout” was most likely used before, and even a while after this date, as a reference to beer of higher strength. So, what exactly did Peter the Great drink? I’d hazard a guess and say it was a dark higher gravity ancestor of the Porter. Even if it wasn’t a stout as we know it, this event could have been the driving force behind exporting these darker ales. Either way, the Russian Imperial Stout came into its own in the late 1700s. In 1781 Barclay Perkins, started to export a higher gravity, higher hopped stout to the Baltic regions. It took the region and Russia by storm because its higher alcohol and greater depth were a joy to this bitter cold region of the world. The discovery of the imported Imperial stout by the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, ensured strong trade would continue, as well as a name that would live on in history for centuries. Style Profile & Characteristics The guidelines for the Imperial Stout beer style are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below details are a summary of what you should expect from this type of beer. Quick Characteristics Color Range: 30-40 SRM Original Gravity: 1.075 – 1.115 OG Final Gravity: 1.018 – 1.030 FG IBU Range: 50 – 90 ABV Range: 8.0 – 12.0% Appearance: Ranges from dark, deep reddish brown to pure black. Head will be dark mocha in color. Aroma: Roasted maltiness, alcohol, hops & fruity esters will all be strong on the nose. Notes of dark fruits, coffee & dark chocolate are also acceptable for this style. Flavor: Intense, complex & rich; Variable ranges of roastiness, malt tones, hoppiness & fruity esters. Notes of chocolate, coffee, burnt grain & dark fruits are common. Noticeable alcohol warmth with dry or sweet finish. Mouthfeel: Full-Bodied with velvety smooth texture; Low-to-moderate carbonation. Serving & Storage Temperature: 50-55°F Shelf Life: 9+ Months Suggested Glass: Snifter Food Pairings: Beef Stew, Beef or Lamb Steaks, Crisp Bacon, Portobello Mushrooms, Gorgonzola, Tiramisu The BJCP classifies this type of beer as an “American Porter and Stout” and it can be found in their guidelines as sub-category 20C, alongside American Porter (20A) and American Stout (20B). Appearance: A Russian imperial will be “stoutly” in the darker colors. This can range from a dark, deep reddish brown to “old motor oil” pure black with little color edging even in good light. It will be opaque with a good dark mocha head forming, but retention is often rather low. The viscous quality and high ABV of these brews may leave behind “legs” on the glass when the beer is swirled. Aroma: Aroma can be varied and complex. Roast, maltiness, alcohol, hops, and fruity esters all find a place here. The malt aromas can remain relatively slight or be of heady barleywine-like richness, often with a twist toward some specialty malt. Fruity esters can be low to strong, often presenting as the “dark fruit” character reminiscent of raisins, prunes, or plumes. Tones of coffee, dark chocolate, and slight char are common and vary by degrees. The warming bite of alcohol can show, but should never present as sharp or solvent-like. Hop aroma may be of any hop variety and can be anywhere on the scale from low to quite strong. Above aromas do not all have to be present and the beers quality can change dramatically with age. Mouthfeel: The body can be very full, velvety smooth, and chewy, but not syrupy or too sweet. Smooth warming alcohol should add to the overall quality of mouthfeel. Can have low to moderate carbonation. Long conditioning times can decrease both the body and carbonation. Taste: Intense flavors. Complex and rich, the flavor can have variable amounts of roastiness, malt tones, hop bitterness/flavor, and fruit esters, often with undertones of alcohol. Both hop bitterness and roasted grain flavors can run the scale from medium to quiet high. Recognize that age will change the balance and intensity of an imperial stout’s flavor; along with the development of a vinous edge. The roasted grains may show as bittersweet chocolate and/or coffee; along with the essence of burnt grain or tarriness. No certain variety of hops is used for flavoring and can run from low to medium. Fruit esters often come through in dark fruit character (raisin, prune, or plume is common) and can be low to high. Malt can be supportive but often runs toward a barleywine-like richness, with qualities of toast and caramel. Alcohol should be noticeable but not overpowering or sharp. Finish usually presents lingering warming, possible roast, and hop bitterness. Can be dry or moderately sweet. BJCP Update: Previously known as a Russian Imperial Stout (13F), this beer style was renamed with the release of the BJCP style guidelines in 2015. The name has been changed to Imperial Stout, and has been re-categorized as an “American Porter and Stout”. This style profile has been updated to reflect this update. *Reference: BJCP style guidelines 2015 Examples of the Style Narwal Imperial Stout from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (Chico, CA)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Bronze, 2014. Russian Imperial Stout from Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant (Wilmington, DE)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Silver, 2013. World Beer Cup Winner, Gold, 2014. See site for availability. Hammer & Sickle from Renegade Brewing Company (Denver, CO)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Bronze, 2013. Availability: November thru April. Bourbon Barrel Aged Siberian Night Imperial Stout from Thirsty Dog Brewing Company (Akron, OH)World Beer Cup Winner, Bronze, 2013. Availability: November thru February. Tips for Brewing an Imperial Stout Recipe If you’re interested in brewing your own Imperial Stout recipe at home, you’ll need to prepare yourself. Prepare to go big. Prepare for a long brew day. Prepare for a challenge. Shop for Stout Recipe Kit on Amazon The Grain Bill: The key to any good stout is in the grain bill, an imperial stout maybe even more so. Shoot for a grain to gallon ratio of about 3.5 pounds to every gallon. This means that the low end of a grain bill, for a 5 gallon batch, is going to weigh in at a hefty 17.5 pounds of grain and could go as high as 20 pounds. Start with a high quality 2-row pale ale base malt. If working toward authenticity, stick with European malts such as Maris Otter, Weyermann, or Crisp. After you have the foundation you can begin to play. Your guiding standard should be complexity. Layer in complexity by using two, three, four, or five malts within each family — especially the roasted grains because this is where much of the chocolate, coffee, and roast come from. Easily 20% of the brewing malts in your grain bill should come from these dark and roasted malts. Adjunct malts such as flaked oats or specialty malts, like Special B, can also be used to increase mouthfeel and depth of flavor. It’s a big beer and can easily hold up to some experimentation. There are both all grain and extract kits available as starting points if you’re not up to creating a recipe of your own. You could easily experiment with a specialty and dark grain min-mash to create added depth, in the case of the extract kits; or add a few more choice malt selections to an all-grain kit. The Mash and Sparge: This much grain is hard to handle in the average homebrew system, but the mash is pretty straight forward. If you can step mash, do it… if not shoot for a single temperature range between 152-158°F and mash for at least 90 minutes. If you find your grain bill is just too much for a single mash you can do it in two parts. Monastic patience is the best advice to get you through the runoff and sparge. It’s gonna be slow and there is real danger of having a stuck runoff. Adding rice hauls can help keep the grain bed from collapsing. As the runoff starts and before you start to sparge, Vorlauf for about twenty minutes. Vorlauf is the process of catching the first runnings and gently sprinkling it back on top of the grain bed. This aids in setting the grain bed and clears the liquid of any bits of grain material that might be making it through the bed. Then begin to sparge. Do all this extremely slow. It is not a race and should take at least an hour if not longer. The more patient you can be about the process the less likely you’ll have to deal with the frustration of a stuck runoff. Hops: The depth and range of flavor found in this beer allows for a bigger hop dose than many other brews could handle. The hops are not meant to standout though, and to this end it is important to use a hop with a relatively high alpha acid content, but one with little distinct flavor. Magnum, Northern Brewer, and East Kent Goldings are all good choices. Put the bulk in as bittering, say 4/5th’s of your IBU number; at 60 minutes. Then the last 1/5th or so with only a minute left in the boil. The Boil: Basic no frills boil of 70 to 90 minutes. Boil over can be a concern, but again be mindful of the process and don’t try to hurry it. The Yeast: Use twice the yeast you’d put in a normal brew. Oxygenate your wort well before casting the yeast; splash, stir, I’ve even used a blender on quantities. Danster Nottingham is a good choice in the dry yeast category and Wyeast 1028 is a great liquid yeast for this style. Whatever the yeast, use two packets and make a good size starter. These beers can be monsters during the fermentation, creating a lot of excess heat, so it might be wise to store it in a temperature controlled refrigerator set at the low end of the yeast’s range. When the beer is done fermenting bottle it and lay it down. It is even said that the original Russian Imperials could be stored for half a century with no ill effects to the beer. Though half a century would be a stretch for even a true monk to wait, it is well worth storing multiple bottles away to see how the profile changes over time. Cheers!