The Russian imperial stout, winter’s answer to the double IPA. It’s the big huge beer that gets all of the press. One of the most coveted styles, it’s the jewel of the brewery’s winter lineup. The style grew out of the Russian royalties preference for the strongest British stouts. Legend has it that Catherine the Great loved absolutely loved the potent stout London’s Anchor Brewery sent over in the 1760’s. The style is massive, dark with roasted malt, chocolate and a blast of bitterness to boot. All that malt results in an ABV higher than the Chicago skyline.
Russian imperial stouts are generally seen as some of the best beers out there. Consider this: Mail Order Bride, a Russian imperial stout from Bare Hands, a microbrewery just down the road from me, beats 94 percent of all beers on RateBeer but only beats 47 percent of Russian imperial stouts. It’s a style that’s extremely top heavy. Luckily we have more than a handful of great ones in the Midwest. I put five to a blind taste test to see which one stood out above the rest. Here are my tasting notes from least favorite (there are no worsts here) to best.
The nose on this 9.1% ABV stout from Illinois shows notes of dark fruits, cherry, chocolate and tinge of alcohol that slightly burns the nostrils. The taste is chocolate and cherry with a hint of bitterness on the end. Compared to the rest, it’s much lighter in body and not nearly as interesting. Still, the loser in this showdown still beats 90% of the other beers out there.
Akron’s entrant in the showdown comes with a strong pedigree – bronze medals at the 2003 and 2006 Great American Beer Festivals and a gold in 2005. This makes sense as the beer predominantly follows the “rules” that govern the style. The aroma is a tad lighter than the rest, with a sizable dose of roasted malt and earthiness. Siberian Night is sweeter than the rest, with more malt character and minimal hop presence. There’s a touch of chocolate. It’s very basic, a good example of the style, but nothing that blows me away.
Leinenkugel’s is mostly known for making very approachable gateway craft beers. It’s the brand that gets you started before you leave it in the rear view for more interesting pursuits. If you haven’t given the brewery a try lately, the Big Eddy series should be enough to bring you back.
The Russian Imperial Stout has an incredible nose. It’s boozy, woody, smoky and sweet, with tons of roasted malt, brown sugar and barbecue sauce. The taste has intense amounts of umami, bordering on soy sauce, mixed with milk chocolate, all balanced with a load of hop bitterness on the back. It’s a tad harsh and a bit rough around the edges but it’s easily right towards the top of the style.
Founders really brings it with their Imperial Stout. The nose has a touch of wood, lots of roasted malt (they use ten different varieties of malt), alcohol heat and black cherry. It’s one of the sweetest of the five and also displays the most roasted malt character. That roast comes forth with chocolate and coffee with a touch of umami and some bitterness on the end, although much less than the Big Eddy. It’s an absolutely beautiful beer that would beat nearly any beer matched against it.
Expedition Stout smells like a brewery. I literally described it as “lovely.” The malt presence is huge with plenty of chocolate and just a little alcohol heat and dark fruit. The beer caresses the tongue with milk chocolate, roasted coffee and cherry. It’s complex but balanced, neither harsh nor overpowering. It’s simply on another level and it just blew me away. Why waste your time hunting whales when you can head down to your local bottle shop and easily get your hands on a six pack of this?
Taste buds are subjective. Just because those are my preferences doesn’t mean they are the right ones. Go out and grab these five and give them your own blind taste test and then let me know which is your favorite. If you’re having trouble finding one of these or just want to further explore the style, consider picking up one of the Midwestern replacements below. And if I missed one, be sure to let me know any others I should be trying.