Tonight, as I watched the season premier of “The Walking Dead” while drinking the majority of a bottle of Left Hand Brewing’s Wake Up Dead Russian Imperial Stout, I came to what I like to call a beerealization. Having tasted dozens of stouts in recent months (yes, in the dead of summer), my taste buds and I have probed the depths of stouts of every caliber and quality, and we have a few words to share about the beloved beer that is the Russian Imperial Stout. But before revealing it, and with fall and Stout-drinking weather upon us, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on and raise my glass to this black-as-tar high-gravity brew.
A Man Discovers Good Beer
The year was 1698 and Peter the Great was perched upon a barstool in a smoky London pub. Taking a break from his Grand Embassy and out alone to escape the pressures of politics, he was busy pondering how to modernize his nation and bring it into line with Europe. As he mulled over his fondness of Western fashion, legally-mandated beardlessness, and how cool it would be to have a city named after himself, he caught the eye of a patron across the bar. The patron motioned to the bartender, who poured a glass of ale and slid it in front of Peter. Lifting his glass to the air, the patron gave Peter a gentle nod and a wink.
“What is this peasant drink?” asked Peter, holding the glass to the light. He remarked on the brew’s blackness and was hesitant to sip it, fearing it might be spoiled. But looking through the dim light and haze of the room, he noted the jolly faces of the Englishmen around him as they slammed back pint after pint of the same black drink.
“Well, when in Rome…” he muttered, raising the glass to the patron and then to his mouth. He tipped it back and let the cool, black ale wash into his mouth.
His taste buds were overwhelmed by malt roast, cocoa, hints of coffee, and something bitter he couldn’t quite identify.
“This stuff is great!” He belched as he slammed the half-empty glass down on the bar. “Just wait ’til the guys back at home get a taste of it. I must have it for my courts!” He drained what remained from his glass, slurped the tan foam from his mustache, and ordered another round for himself and his new friend.
The Porter Evolves
Much Peter’s his chagrin, and perhaps to the embarrassment of the British monarchy and early Porter brewers, the first shipments of Porter sent over to Russia either spoiled or froze on the long journey to the Imperial Court (history seems divided on which was the case, if either). So in a nod to the brewing tactic we all know gave birth to the much-loved IPA a half-century later, brewers took their comparatively-tame Porter recipes and amped them up with more malt and hops to raise the alcohol content and increase the shelf life of their Russia-bound Porters.
After sitting in barrels for the long journey to Russia, the beer acquired a delightfully-smooth character from the wood in which it was shipped, and ultimately, the Russian Imperial Stout was born. It was a deliciously robust beverage fit for a king that brought roasted and burnt flavors from the malting process straight to the consumer’s palate, smoothing out with a hints of toffee, chocolate, coffee, plums and dark fruit, and alcohol.
Russia and the world of beer would never be the same. Upon opening St. Petersburg, Peter required banquet attendees to drink his British-made beer. And years later, when Catherine the Great took rule, she embraced the Russian Imperial Stout as her beverage of choice, ordering barrel after barrel from England and often boasting how she could drink as much of the strong drink as any Englishman.
Or perhaps this is all just a colorful and inspiring story that is far more entertaining than the actual history of the Imperial Stout, and original Porter brewers made a stronger, sweeter, smoother, and more hearty beer not to keep it from freezing, but because people (including Russian tsars and empresses) liked how it tasted, plain and simple.
About that Beerealization
As I had been saying before I was interrupted by my twisted take on history, I do have a word or two to share about Imperial Stouts (Russian and American alike). Love them as I and millions of beer drinks around the world do, I can’t help but feel that the best Imperial Stouts I get my hands on always taste the same.
I’m not saying that there aren’t any differences; to proclaim this would be blasphemy. But boiled down, what separates one good Imperial Stout from another is often just a slight variation in the intensity of a certain number of predestined flavors. But as long as they’re all there, the beer is a good one that can stand up against any other of its brethren. You’ve got your chocolate, coffee, and espresso base, roasted and burnt malt, toffee, molasses, elements of dark fruit, generally-tame hop bitterness, and in most cases, ambiguous alcohol or bourbon of varying intensity.
These flavors all make for a fine beer and a style I love with all my heart, but in the end, unless there’s something special going on inside that stout, like in Great Divide’s Yeti Clan lineup, I can’t justify spending vast quantities of time, energy, and money to track down and drink an elusive Imperial Stout like I do when it comes to other high-gravity beers.
With that all considered, I tip my hat to Left Hand Brewing for making a great Russian Imperial Stout that has a bit of everything I’m looking for, including an extremely fair price tag. Now if only these guys would start distributing a good Imperial IPA and something hoppier than 400 Pound Monkey in Arizona!
Curious to read what other beer drinkers think of Wake Up Dead? Head over to BeerAdvocate to see how this beer stands up!