As the temperatures drop and the days get shorter, one beer style reigns supreme: the Russian Imperial Stout. According to the Brewers Association 2015 Beer Style Guidelines, however, the style does not exist. In fact, nowhere in the 49 pages of the guide do the words “Russian Imperial Stout” appear. The only mentions of imperial stouts are in two categories, British-Style Imperial Stout and American-Style Imperial Stout. Both are defined as being between 7-12% ABV with a final gravity (the beer’s relative density compared to water) of 1.020-1.030.
Despite the Russian Imperial Stout’s lack of official sanction, popular review site BeerAdvocate describes the style as having “low to moderate levels of carbonation with huge roasted, chocolate and burnt malt flavors. Often dry. Suggestions of dark fruit and flavors of higher alcohols are quite evident. Hop character can vary from none, to balanced to aggressive.” On BeerAdvocate, there are 1,407 listed examples of Russian Imperial Stouts; it is a simplification but true to say that the Russian version of the imperial stout borrows from both the American (aggressive flavors of roasted malt and hops) and British (more balanced and subdued roasted malt and hops) styles, and falls somewhere in between the two.
There is also historical evidence for the RIS’s claim as a style. As the story goes, the beer was first brewed in England for export to Russia at the command of Catherine the Great. The style was adapted from a traditional porter by Thrale’s Brewery in London, but was brewed to have a high alcohol content that helped keep the beer from going bad on the long journey from England to Russia. (Lower-ABV beers would freeze during the crossing of the Baltic, effectively ruining the beer.) The elevated alcohol content kept Catherine’s prized beer from freezing and helped it to arrive in Russia as it was intended.
The style has evolved a great deal from its roots and now includes everything from barrel-aged versions to examples brewed with cocoa nibs, cinnamon and coffee — but the high alcohol content is still a defining characteristic. Maybe you aren’t transporting this beer to Russia, but the warming of the alcohol and the bite of the roasted malts come in handy on cold nights by the fire. These are some of the best of the style, made right here in America.
Firestone Walker Parabola
ABV: 14% | California
The Firestone family was known for wine before they were known for beer; before they were known for wine they were known for tires. When they started their brewery in 1996, they brought their vintner knowledge with them. For their Proprietor’s Vintage Series, and specifically their Parabola, Firestone Walker blends barrels of different ages to produce a balanced and well-rounded beer. 3,500 cases of Parabola were produced for the 2015 vintage, which was fermented with FW’s house British ale yeast, lending it a classic and clean yeast profile.
Tasting Notes: The nose produces notes of oak, star anise, Fig Newton and a hint of dry hay. The taste is complex with a big marshmallow character, amplified by the smooth and creamy mouthfeel. Some tasters also noted sherry or port characteristics as well as a smoky, bourbon-esque aftertaste.
ABV: 10.3% | Minnesota
Described on the bottle as “massively opaque,” Surly’s mega-RIS Darkness lives up to its name. It is released at Surly’s Minneapolis brewery each year on “Darkness Day,” when the Surly faithful brave the cold and bundle up against the frigid October wind. Lines stretch down the street for a chance to purchase an allotment of a single bottle. The cult classic scores a 98 on BeerAdvocate.
Tasting Notes: An extremely balanced beer. The nose has notes of roasted malts, sweet marshmallow and a hint of red wine tannins. The taste is just slightly tart with a big marshmallow flavor and roasted malts on the finish.
Clown Shoes The Good, The Bad, & The Unidragon
ABV: 14% | Massachusetts
The Good, The Bad & The Unidragon is something of an enigma. It’s brewed in Ipswich, Massachusetts but is currently only available in Texas — following the brewery’s trend of releasing state-exclusive beers. “TGTBTU,” as it is known, is a riff on the brewery’s Blaecorn Unidragon using smoked malts from Blacklands Malt. (Clown Shoes also makes a barrel-aged version called A Fistful of Unidragon that is aged in bourbon barrels, adding hints of vanilla and a bit more of a warming alcohol characteristic.) TGTBTU has no dry hops and instead of using smoke peat malt, they use mesquite smoked malt. Very little else is known about TGTBTU, but the label advises drinkers: “As you sit down to a glass, remember, there are two types of people: those who drink unidragons and those whose ashes drift in the breeze.”
Tasting Notes: On the nose are hints of smoke and, as one taster noticed, an almost “potato chip aroma.” The taste has a strong smoke character with a faint sour note. There are also underlying tones of burnt pretzel and a mezcal finish. For being 14% ABV, this beer hides it very well.
Hangar 24 Barrel Roll No. 3 Pugachev’s Cobra
ABV: 18.9% | California
Named for the gut-wrenching aerial maneuver of Russian test pilot Victor Pugachev, Pugachev’s Cobra is not for the faint of heart. Clocking in at 18.9% ABV, it should be shared with a friend — or two. Hangar 24 uses three different dark roasted malts along with maple syrup as the base of the beer, then aging it in freshly emptied bourbon barrels for eight months.
Tasting Notes: As the beer is poured, aromas of maple, bourbon and oak waft up from the glass. The taste is similar to the aroma with the addition of vanilla, roasted malts and baker’s chocolate. The flavors linger and don’t fade readily.
Oskar Blues Ten FIDY
ABV: 10.5% | Colorado
Deep black and about as thick as motor oil, Oskar Blues’ Ten FIDY was first canned in 2007 after being a very popular draft-only offering. The only canned beer on our list, Ten FIDY goes just about anywhere; because of Oskar Blues’ giant distribution footprint, Ten FIDY is readily available across the country, making it a go-to for any Russian Imperial Stout junkie.
Tasting Notes: The nose has strong aromas of dark fruit and stale coffee with a hop bitterness underneath. The hop bitterness carries through to the taste accompanied by strong notes of toffee, chocolate-covered raisins and charred roasted malts. One taster noted an aftertaste of a caffè americano.
We also had the pleasure of sampling a 2012 Ten FIDY poured from a crowler (32-ounce can growler). The thick, viscous, velvety-smooth mouthfeel further amplifies the flavors, and a few years have done wonderful things to this beer. The nose smells heavily of burnt sugar, toffee and over-baked chocolate chip cookies. The taste is similar with a strong baker’s chocolate characteristic and a faint tinge of wet cardboard. The typical “soy sauce” characteristic that some people pick up in aged stouts is nonexistent. Notes of roasted malts are present akin to old coffee. There is a noble hop bitterness on the finish that lingers for a moment before fading.
Good People Brewing Fatso
ABV: 9.3% | Alabama
Good People Brewing opened up shop in Birmingham, Alabama in 2008 and has been producing solid ales ever since. While their Snake Handler double IPA may get all of the attention, Fatso Russian Imperial Stout is the star of the show. The beefy 9.3% ABV midnight-black ale is backed up by a hefty 78.8 IBUs, which help to cut the sweetness and balance out the beer. (If you are lucky enough to spot their El Gordo, grab a bottle. It is essentially the recipe for Fatso doubled into a 13.9% ABV beer of monstrous proportions.)
Tasting Notes: The nose has aromas of milk chocolate and a sweet caramel note. The taste is dry with indications of stale roasted coffee, baker’s chocolate, dark fruits and an oxidized character. Its light mouthfeel makes it very drinkable.
Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project Barbapapa
ABV: 12% | Massachusetts
Dann and Martha Paquette started the little-known Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project in 2008. They are “tenant brewers,” which means that they rent a brewing space from a larger brewery and then do everything themselves, from formulating the recipe to milling the grain. They first brewed Barbapapa back in 2013 using a double mash method and 8,000 pounds of grain. The resulting beer is ranked in the top 50 Russian Imperial Stouts on BeerAdvocate and is a dark horse among the beers on this list. The beer’s name translates to “daddy’s beard” in French and is also the name of a popular French cartoon.
Tasting Notes: The nose has hints of rye and anise. The taste is well balanced with a roasted malt character that is not overpowering. The mouthfeel is just thick enough without being cloying. There are also hints of raisin and dark fruits. A surprise favorite in our tasting.
Dark Horse Brewing BBA Plead the 5th
ABV: 12% | Michigan
Perhaps one of the most sought-after beers in our tasting, Dark Horse Brewing Co.’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Plead the 5th is ranked fourth on BeerAdvocate‘s list of best Russian Imperial Stouts. BBA Plead the 5th also sits at number 47 on BA‘s list of the Top 250 Beers. It is only available at Dark Horse’s 4 Elf Party in December and is brewed with “a top secret root.”
Tasting Notes: The nose has notes of vanilla, bourbon, a slight roastiness and, as the beer warms, a strong note of marshmallow. There are also hints of toasted nuts, chocolate-covered orange and a waft of bubblegum. The taste is similar to the nose with the addition of baker’s chocolate. The finish is smooth and balanced, not dry but not cloying, either. This beer is one of the most complex in our tasting.
Bell’s Expedition Stout
ABV: 10.5% | Michigan
Expedition Stout is one of the OGs of the American Russian Imperial Stout market. Brewed by Bell’s Brewing in Comstock, Michigan, Expedition Stout — like Ten FIDY — is built to be aged. Few breweries recommend that their beers be aged but Bell’s notes it right on the label.
Tasting Notes: The nose has notes of sweet milk chocolate with undertones of marshmallow and ground coffee. The roasted coffee notes are more apparent in the taste. The velvety smooth mouthfeel is almost delicate on the palate. An excellent representation of the style.
Sierra Nevada Barrel-Aged Narwhal
ABV: 12.9% | California & North Carolina
Sierra Nevada’s Barrel-Aged Narwhal is something of a skunk works project. It isn’t listed anywhere on their website and, unlike most of their other beers, it comes packaged in a cork-and-caged 750mL bottle. To make it, Sierra Nevada ages their Narwhal Russian Imperial Stout, a world-class beer in its own right, in Willett Single Barrel, Heaven Hill and various Beam-brand whiskey barrels. What emerges from the barrels is a beer with mellowed roasted characteristics and smooth chocolate brought to the forefront. Along with its cousin Barrel-Aged Bigfoot, BA Narwhal is one of the rarest beers SN makes.
Tasting Notes: A well-balanced and drinkable example. Notes of barrel char and alcohol on the nose. The taste is dry and bright with roasted malt and a rye characteristic.
Due to availability restrictions, there were some beers that we just couldn’t get in time for this article. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be here as much as the others.
Creature Comforts See the Stars, 13% ABV
See the Stars is Creature Comforts’ first bottle release and it skyrocketed to the number two spot on Beer Advocate‘s list of best Russian Imperial Stouts. The beer, which was aged in maple bourbon barrels since the brewery opened in 2014, was just released last month.
3 Floyds Dark Lord, 15% ABV
Brewed with coffee, Indian sugar and Mexican vanilla, Dark Lord has been atop the RIS throne for almost as long as it has been brewed. If you are crazy enough to attempt to trade for a bottle, be prepared to give up your firstborn child.
Cigar City Zhukov’s Final Push, 11.5% ABV
When it comes to high-gravity stouts, Cigar City has a corner on the market with offerings like Hunahpu’s, Double Barrel Hunahpu’s, Marshal Zhukov’s and the coup de gras, Zhukov’s Final Push — an aged Kopi Luwak coffee version of Marshal Zhukov’s.
Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti, 9.5% ABV
Instead of filling bourbon barrels with their Yeti Imperial Stout, Great Divide ages it on French and American oak chips. They do this by putting the oak chips directly into the fermentor. This gives the beer a similar oak aged flavor while keeping the cost down compared to other barrel aged stouts.
18th Street Imperial Blud, 10.5% ABV
Imperial Blud is 18th Street’s limited-release Russian Imperial Stout brewed with cocoa nibs, vanilla bean, cinnamon and coffee from Metropolis Coffee Company. It is released on a rotating basis at the brewery only and is one of the best Russian Imperial Stouts in the Midwest.