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The Art of Darkness

With its robust flavor, inky darkness, alcoholic warmth, and august lineage, imperial stout is the ne plu ultra of big beer, and indeed, the source of all things imperial.

Dave Carpenter February 03, 2016

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When the last leaf of the year has fallen and nights grow longer than days, our proclivities shift from amber lagers and wet-hopped harvest ales to rich styles that warm from within. We look for beer with substance and gravitas, beer you can—at least metaphorically—eat with a knife and fork.

Russian imperial stout is the original regal ale. While populist demands (hops for all!) have driven imperial IPA’s ascent to sovereignty, Russian imperial stout exploits our deepest weaknesses for decadence and keeps us coming back for more. More than a few craft-beer devotees have sworn fealty to the czar of stouts, and once you’ve given in, it’s unlikely you’ll ever renounce its powerful hold.

From London with Love

Russian imperial stout may suggest images of hardy brewers gathered around a boil kettle for warmth, but the stoutest of stouts was actually born in Britain as an export product to Baltic and Russian markets. Thanks to a convenient loophole in Russian trade taxes, prominent eighteenth and nineteenth century London breweries such as Thrale’s Anchor, Barclay Perkins, and Courage shipped boatloads of thick, rich stout to St. Petersburg.

Russian stout, as it was called, found considerable success with the Russian imperial court and is especially associated with Catherine the Great. Indeed, bottles of Courage Imperial Russian Stout, which has been brewed in one form or another since the late 1700s (sporadically, it must be said: Wells & Young’s resurrected it in 2011 following an 18-year hiatus), still proclaim the ale within to be “As originally brewed in 1795 for Catherine the Great of Russia.”

But it is America’s craft brewers who ultimately made imperial stout what it is today. The style has diversified into innumerable sub-genres that don’t so much express differentiation as riffs on a theme. Individual classifications are not well codified. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) recognizes only Russian Imperial Stout, while the 2014 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) style guide only distinguishes British styles from American-style versions. The reality is that commercial imperial stouts have been brewed with any number of embellishments:

  • Cherries, raspberries, or coconut
  • Oats, rye, or wheat
  • Cacao nibs, cocoa powder, or milk chocolate bars
  • Coffee or espresso
  • Wood aging in its numerous forms
  • Vanilla, licorice, and other flavorings
  • Lactose, whiskey, or (a personal fave) Nutella

From Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, American craft brewers have opened imperial stout to interpretation. And perhaps no better interpretation typifies the modern Russian-American stout craze than Speedway Stout from AleSmith Brewing Company.

Speedway Stout

AleSmith is a small San Diego brewery that crafts about 15,000 barrels per year, roughly the volume that Anheuser-Busch InBev brews in eighty minutes. Twelve states are lucky enough to fall within AleSmith’s distribution footprint, and, along with its IPA, Speedway Stout is one of the brewery’s most sought-after brews. Brewed year-round, this impressive imperial features coffee roasted by local purveyor Ryan Bros. Coffee.

AleSmith describes the stout’s appearance as “ominous” and “pitch-black,” and the aroma and flavor deliver fully on all that such a dark demeanor implies. Speedway’s allure lies in its delicate balance of fresh coffee, roasted malts, nuanced chocolate, and alcoholic warmth. No single component stands above the others, making the 12 percent ABV beer dangerously drinkable.

According to AleSmith marketing specialist Alex Barbiere, Speedway got its start as a homebrew recipe in the late 1990s and was eventually scaled up to the 30-barrel brewhouse the brewery operates today. The beer’s awards include a Silver at the 2008 Great American Beer Festival and Golds at the 2012 and 2014 San Diego International Beer Competition.

Not content to leave well enough alone, AleSmith has released countless variations on the base beer. During San Diego Beer Week, the brewery features two flights of five Speedway permutations, available only through advance ticket sales. Past examples have showcased a variety of ingredients:

  • Vietnamese coffee
  • Dueling coffee and espresso
  • Nutella
  • Cherry and amaretto
  • Vanilla and coconut
  • Kopi Luwak, a coffee that has successfully entered and—this is key—exited the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet

For homebrewers looking to brew a great imperial stout, Speedway’s remarkable progression from homebrewed experiment to national phenomenon should provide all of the encouragement you need.

Whether you like to brew over-the-top hops bombs, prefer the subtle pleasures of a British pub ale, or want to create the next award-winning imperial stout, discover how to build your own beer recipes from the ground up with CB&B’s online course, Intro to Recipe Development. Sign up today.

Homebrewing Imperial Stout

Imperial stout is a beer to impress. A rich but balanced mélange of chocolate, coffee, and dark fruits dominates the nose, while the flavor delivers a powerful bittersweet chocolate. This is not the time to be shy, but rather your opportunity to pull out all the stops. Brew it rich, and brew it big. Variations are endless, but a few simple guidelines can get you from point A to point Z.

The style is built upon a firm foundation of pale malt, augmented by generous quantities of dark caramel malts (Special B seems especially common), chocolate malt, black malt, and roasted barley in varying amounts. You’re aiming for an original gravity of at least 1.080, but much higher gravities are the norm. Speedway weighs in at 1.114, and according to Michael Lewis’s Stout, Anchor’s late eighteenth-century examples exceeded 1.100.

Hops should supply substantial bitterness to balance out the robust malt bill, to the tune of 50 to 90 IBUs. Just about any bittering hops will work, but woodsy and floral English varieties complement the roasted flavors and aromas particularly well. The focus is usually on bittering, but some hops aroma and flavor isn’t necessarily out of place. As for yeast, both American and English strains can do a fantastic job, but pay close attention to attenuation: Too low, and you could end up with a cloying malt bomb.

As does any high-gravity beer, imperial stout requires a healthy fermentation to achieve the right level of attenuation and to avoid throat-burning fusel alcohols. This comes down to three key elements.

Pitch lots of yeast.

Plan on at least twice what you would for a normal-gravity ale and make sure those yeast cells are fit. An excellent way to build up a large population for imperial stout is to brew and ferment an ordinary stout and pitch the leftover yeast right into your high-gravity wort. Be prepared for a vigorous fermentation with plenty of headspace and a blow-off tube.

Oxygenate the wort when transferring to the fermentor.

For a beer this big, introducing pure oxygen through a sintered diffusion stone is probably your best bet. If you don’t have the means to inject pure oxygen, pay extra attention to splashing and shaking the wort during and after racking.

Control the temperature.

Once your healthy and abundant yeast population gets to work, the temperature will try to get away from you. Do whatever you must to keep the internal temperature in the mid-60s Fahrenheit (upper teens Celsius). It’s fine to let the temperature ramp up as fermentation slows to assure adequate attenuation, but otherwise, you need to keep the temperature in check.

Don’t go rushin’ the Russian.

Russian imperial stouts may take months to even out and mature, so leave plenty of time for bulk conditioning before you package in kegs or bottles. And set aside a few bottles for future consumption as these ales often get better with age.

Born in London and brought to San Diego by way of St. Petersburg, imperial stout is just the thing to make those cold winter nights a little warmer.

Have you brewed this recipe? What did you think?