However, Russian imperial stout nearly died out. By the late 20th-century most breweries in England had abandoned the style. The Thrale’s porter mentioned by Farington managed to survive under a succession of owners until 1993 when production was stopped. But in the 1980s American importer Merchant du Vin convinced the Samuel Smith Brewery to make one for the American market. That beer inspired American and English brewers alike and brought about a revival of the style. Even Thrale’s porter is available again as Courage Imperial Russian Stout, now brewed by Wells and Young.
Modern imperial stouts are full-bodied and chewy with a velvety texture. They are built on the flavors and aromas of roasted grains, but that character can be medium to high and range from bitter chocolate to strong coffee and even slightly burnt. Bitterness from both hops and roasted malts tends to be fairly high, but the massive load of malt can lead to a perception of sweetness in some examples. Underlying notes of caramel, molasses, bread, or toast are not uncommon. Additional complexity comes from fermentation-derived flavors of dark fruits like raisins, plums, and prunes. The finish can range from dry to fairly sweet with lingering hop and roasted-malt bitterness.
The BJCP gives the starting gravity for the style as 1.075 to 1.115. The alcohol content is 8 to 12% by volume. Bitterness ranges from 50 to 90 IBU. At 30 to 40 SRM, imperial stouts appear opaque black.
From the Archives: Beer Versus Wine
Although extended barrel-aging probably gave early imperial stouts an acidic overtone that these examples lack, the English-brewed Courage Imperial Russian Stout and Samuel Smith Imperial Stout give a sense of what the style may have been like when Farington wrote his diary. At just 8% ABV, the Samuel Smith version lies on the low end of the alcohol range but is a stunning beer nonetheless.
Modern American versions abound. Deschutes The Abyss, Great Divide Yeti, and North Coast Old Rasputin are all excellent examples. One of my personal favorites is Victory Storm King. It is lighter bodied than some, with a dry finish and assertive bitterness. Local examples include Surly Darkness, Fulton Worthy Adversary, and Lift Bridge Silhouette.
Bourbon-barrel aging imparts rich vanilla, coconut, and whiskey flavors to imperial stouts. You can find barrel-aged versions of many of the examples listed above. Also try Minneapolis Town Hall Czar Jack and Barley John’s Dark Knight Returns.
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