The best imperial stouts this winter
24 October 2016, By Jonny Garrett
At Beer Merchants we’re big believers in drinking seasonally. That’s not to say we throw out the IPAs come autumn, or brown ales come summer. What it means is we drink beers that suit the food we’re eating, or the weather we’re experiencing, and more importantly we drink them as they are brewed hoping that the brewery is paying attention to seasonal ingredients.
We’re big fans of the way Cloudwater go about their brewing schedule, noting the seasons and using the freshest hops as they arrive. In spring their kettle and fermenters are filled to the brim with American hops, while in Autumn they switch to Antipodean ones because that’s when they arrive in the UK. Using hops at the freshest is really important because as hops age they lose their bitterness and aroma. Unless you’re a lambic brewer who is only after hops’ preservative powers, that’s the last thing you want. We’ve tasted plenty of fresh beers that seem dusty and old already, and that’s often down to using old hops.
But going deeper autumn is a time for deeper colour and richer flavour. You can see it in the browning of the leaves and the heartiness of the food. No one wants a lager with their beef stew, or a session IPA by the fire. For many the colder months mean slowing down and we think that can apply to the drinking too. Imperial stouts are great sippers and much better with seasonal food – their roastiness can be lovely with darker meats and stews, and they’re brilliant with lots of traditional British desserts (try Christmas pudding!) and cheeses thanks to the sweetness that comes from the residual sugars and slight booziness.
If more evidence was needed that imperial stouts are the ultimate winter beer, you need only to look their history. Some claim they were brewed stronger to survive being shipped over the freezing Baltic seas to Russia, where they we hugely popular with a citizenship pretty good at knocking back highly alcoholic drinks neat. That’s pretty widely debunked as to protect them from freezing on the boat would require temperatures so cold the sea would also be frozen, and no beer would get anywhere.
Actually, the name Russian Imperial stout most likely comes from the fondness that the royal Russian families had for the style. The amount being imported to Russia in the early 1800s was, to quote one historian “incredible”. Even when frosty relations with the UK meant British products were banned from being imported, the strong porters were still admissible through customs because the Russians didn’t think they could make beer that good themselves.
For the full story of imperial stouts and how they came to be, check out Zythophile’s account. But before you dive headlong down that rabbit hole, below are a couple of our favourite Russian Imperial Stouts – beers over 8.5% with plenty of roasted notes but also lots of sweetness and warmth.
As the maker of all Mikkeller’s big stouts, Lervig head brewer Mike Murphy knows how to put together a big ABV beer. His flagship imperial stout (and believe me, he has lots more) has lots of vanilla, dark chocolate and a port-like sweet finish that is more moreish than we’d like to admit. For something even more special, watch out for the seasonal release of Lervig’s Three Beer Stout – it’s like Christmas in a glass.
Now rated as the best beer made in Britain by the Internets, Yellow Belly was invented as part of the 2013 Rainbow Project when Buxton were paired with Swedish gipsy brewers, Omnipollo. Dressed as a Klu Klux Klan member and made to a secret recipe it is a truly enigmatic beer. More importantly, it's absolutely stunning – beyond decadent, all nuttiness, milk chocolate, Tia Maria and roasty bitterness.
Omnipollo like to make beer that doesn’t taste like beer. And this blueberry cheesecake imperial stout is just that – loaded with sweet, malt biscuit flavours, an aromatic acidic fruitiness and lots of bitter chocolate, it’s a mind-bending and ridiculous beer that suits the mad branding and milk-bottle packaging.
At a meer 9% ABV this is could be small fry compared to the others in this list, but the time in oak barrels, absorbing lots of dry, oaky flavours and unusual yeast strains makes for a complex beer. When you flip the lid the distinctive and intoxicating spicy aroma of fresh spruce leaps out the bottle along with some sweeter esters and roastedness.
We first had this beer up at the brewery, in bottle and without the addition of the Vietnamese coffee. It blew us away – co chocolately and rich, but somehow with enough acidity to never seem cloying. The coffee has added huge depth to the beer, and the aroma seems to seep back out of every orifice after drinking. An exciting, challenging beer.
Probably the most on-style beer De Dolle make, their export stout is has lots of chocolate, coffee and some hazelnut notes intermingling with more acidic liquorice tones. It’s kept light by the signature Belgian high carbonation, which makes it dance off your tongue.
Lighter on the alcohol and also in the colour, with just a hint of ruby to it, Obscura is a Belgian stout with plenty of dark fruit and banana from the yeast. But it’s actually a very dry beer thanks to the roasted malts and oaky tannins, which means that perceived sweetness ends up more like liquorice. Complex, brooding and brilliant.
GOOSE ISLAND BOURBON COUNTY STOUT
If there is one benefit from AB InBev’s purchase of Goose Island (and I’m pretty sure there is only one) it’s that the world-famous and truly beautiful Bourbon Country Stout is coming to the UK in tiny quantities - due to land in the next month or so! It’s the beer that started brewers’ obsessions with barrel ageing, and it is still perhaps the best one in the world. With lots of sweet vanilla, coconut, dark chocolate and a little malt biscuit, it’s a sweet beer balanced by just a hint of roastiness on the finish. It is a perfect beer – don’t let any snob tell you it isn’t.