Indiana Beer Group Tasting and Reviews – Russian Imperial Stouts

According to legend, the origins of Russian Imperial Stout can be traced to when Peter the Great opened Czarist Russia to the West. A trip to England exposed Peter to the Porters that were very popular in the early 18th century. When the Imperial court of Russia requested Porter to be sent over from England; the low alcohol, lightly-hopped brew spoiled during the journey. Because alcohol and hops act as preservatives in beer, English brewers increased these qualities in a new version of porter that could survive the journey, and the style we know as Imperial Stout was born. The John Courage Brewery used the term “Imperial Stout” on the label of their beer, boasting that it’s creation was by Imperial order of Catherine the Great.

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Today’s Russian Imperial Stout has been embraced by American craft brewers to be even bigger and more flavorful. They typically clock in with an alcohol by volume content of 9% to as high as 15%+, and contain an intense blend of various dark malts. As the winter months close in on the Hoosier state, now is a great time to acquire some thick and rich Russian Imperial Stouts to help you make it through some chilly nights ahead. The high alcohol and specialty malts also make these beers ideal for aging, where the flavors can mature and sometimes develop a vinous quality. To make the comparison in this tasting as fair as possible, all beers included were 2013 vintages. Keep in mind that a comparison of the same beers after aging for 3, 5, or even 10 years could yield different results.

We didn’t mess around with the lineup for this tasting – each of these beers rate at least a 92 on Beer Advocate and come from highly respected breweries Bell’s, North Coast, Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, and Three Floyds. With this lineup of heavy hitters, a blind tasting was administered by our lovely hostess Poppi Rocketts (watch for the coveted Poppi’s pick in the results below). The beers were served in a random order to our tasting panel, and the identity of each was not revealed until after the panelists had finalized their individual rankings. Joining me on the panel were IndianaBeer reporters Dave Allen and Jason Wilkerson and guest reviewer Tim Palmer. Here is a summary of each beer sampled, with the brewery’s description followed by the panel’s tasting comments.

Beer #1: Sierra Nevada Narwhal – Narwhal Imperial Stout is inspired by the mysterious creature that thrives in the deepest fathoms of the frigid Arctic Ocean. Featuring incredible depth of malt flavor, rich with notes of espresso, baker’s cocoa, roasted grain and a light hint of smoke, Narwhal is a massive malt-forward monster. Aggressive but refined with a velvety smooth body and decadent finish, Narwhal will age in the bottle for years to come. 60 IBU 10.2% ABV

Dave: I ranked this beer in third place of the five we sampled. To my palate the beer seemed a bit simplistic for what I might expect from a RIS. Not to say that it was not a good beer, it certainly was. But there were other beers in the panel that were more complex, better balanced, and generally just better beers. I found the Narwhal to be primarily about the chocolate malt and alcohol. It was also the most carbonated beer in our flight, which I was grateful for, as we’ll see coming up… I like to measure the beers in these tasting panels against the completely subjective and totally arbitrary question:
Would I Drink Another. Which is to say: did this beer impress me enough that I would order more than one if out at a bar having beers with friends. For the Narwhal, I say sure. It was a decent beer; I’d be happy to consume a couple of pints. 
Dave’s Rank: 3rd
Jason: This is not nearly thick enough to be a Russian Imperial. There is no coating of the glass and I miss that used motor oil sensation. There is a nice, roast smell to it but it is subtle. The beer was not harsh on the tongue at all, not strong or overpowering like some beers in this category tend to be. I had trouble detecting the bitter notes of hops which is okay for me because it leads to a very smooth drink. There was no strong after taste, nothing lingered longer than it had to. Good overall beer, a nice stout to give to a beginner to the category but not quite sure it's a Russian Imperial.
Jason’s Rank: 5th
Nathan: Pours with a thick, frothy head and a nice chocolate malt aroma. The roasted malt and hop aroma are fairly low for a RIS. Chocolate and coffee dominate the flavor profile with hints of dark fruit and some earthy hop character. The thick and heavy mouthfeel seems more in line with a RIS than the overall flavor profile. Alcohol is present, but very smooth and not distracting. This is a very good beer overall, but seems a bit lacking in flavor complexity for the style. 
Nathan’s Rank: 4th
Tim: Pitch black with a large light brown head. Spicy, woodsy hop character followed by light roasted chocolate notes. The initial hop character initially reminded me of a Northern Brewer hop, but seemed to disappear as the beer warmed. Full body with a smooth roasted chocolate character (more chocolate than roast) and high hop bitterness that lingered. This was also the most carbonated out of the beers sampled. Alcohol was present and warming, but not harsh. The beer did not have the character of a Russian Imperial, but reminded me more of a big American Stout, and as such was nice, but not a Russian Imperial Stout, BUT I would definitely order another.
Tim’s Rank: 4th

Beer #2: North Coast Old Rasputin – Produced in the tradition of 18th Century English brewers who supplied the court of Russia's Catherine the Great, Old Rasputin seems to develop a cult following wherever it goes. It’s a rich, intense brew with big complex flavors and a warming finish. 75 IBU 9% ABV

Dave: Our tasting panel all came to the same conclusion that this one was, hands down, the best beer on the table. To my palate it was complex, balanced, with flavors of both chocolate and roasted malt, hints of coffee and apparent (but not dominating) alcohol. When I conjure up what RIS should be in my imagination: this is it - delicious without being overpowering in any of the handful of typical flavor profiles one might expect. Great beer. And readily available locally all year round at a competitive price point. What’s not to like?
Would I Drink Another: Absolutely.  
Dave’s Rank: 1st
Jason: The aroma of chocolate was a welcome sign as it reminds me of this category of beer. Thicker than Beer #1 but still not the texture I've come to expect, which is not a bad thing. Great flavor. This beer throws a knockout punch on your tongue from the start to announce its presence. Rich in color, flavor and texture, the bold taste follows from the front of your mouth to the back. A great Russian Imperial with good balance of bitter and sweet.
Jason’s Rank: 1st
Nathan: Less head retention than the first beer, but the level of roasted malt character has increased and nicely balances the chocolate notes. Wonderful flavor complexity: chocolate, coffee, raisins, figs, and hints of citrus hop character. Thick mouthfeel with a fairly dry finish and lingering bitterness the complements the intense malt character. Moderate alcohol warming in the aftertaste, but never harsh or distracting from the other flavors. This beer almost perfectly embodies the best qualities I associate with Russian Imperial Stouts. Outstanding! 
Nathan’s Rank: 1st
Tim:  Let's just say that I can't see through the beer as it is dark as night with a small dark tan head. The first hints of the aroma immediately hit me as this wonderful blend of rich malt (bready, hint of fruit), roast and chocolate character followed by a low earthy hop nose. The first taste filled my mouth with this full bodied, rich, more roast (not acrid) than chocolate, complex delicious beer that finished dry leaving me asking for more. Even with the low head, it had plenty of carbonation to support this big beer. The alcohol was pleasantly warming and not hot at all. This was solid all the way through! Can I have another? This is what I was expecting from a Russian Imperial Stout.
Tim’s Rank: 1st

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Beer #3: Three Floyds Dark Lord – A demonic Russian Style Imperial Stout, brewed with Intelligensia coffee Mexican vanilla, and Indian sugar this beer defies description, available one day a year in April at the brewery, Dark Lord Day. ??? IBU 15% ABV

Dave: This beer was my least favorite of the group. I found it to be syrupy, very sweet, a little under carbonated and heavy on the palate. To be fair, there were some malt complexities present if one could get past the palate coating sweetness, but for me personally it was too much. Perhaps a bit more carbonation would have helped to lift some of that sensation (see the Narwhal notes above) but compared side by side with other examples of the style, this beer fell flat. This is the part where I offer up opinions about marketing and the conception of quality as it compares to demand and price points… or not. The panel scores speak for themselves.
Would I Drink Another: No. Please no. Someone take the rest my sample, please… 
Dave’s Rank: 5th
Jason: No overpowering roast aroma here but yet distinct as almost too sweet. This is the viscosity I was expecting as it leaves a presence on the glass. No hop bitterness that I can detect and even if it was there the sweetness just dominates the liquid throughout. If you like syrupy sweet beers, this is a great one for you. Bold and attempting to be imposing, but not a beer you could drink with ease.
Jason’s Rank: 4th
Nathan: Low head retention and carbonation, but still unleashes an intense aroma dominated by roasted malts and burnt sugar. Nice complexity in the flavor with coffee, molasses, burnt sugar, and cream. There is a lingering residual sweetness throughout the flavor that does not fade even after you swallow the beer. Substantial bitterness is apparent, but is still competing with the sweetness to clean up the beer before your next sip. Seems higher in alcohol than the other examples, and might be pushing the limit of “too much”. I really like the flavor complexity of this beer, but the residual sweetness is hard to overlook. 
Nathan’s Rank: 5th
Tim: Well let's just say, more pitch blackness. Getting the idea here. Very little head or apparent carbonation, but it did carry a dark tank ring around the top of the beer. My first impression of the aroma and the taste was I was drinking some extremely rich, sweet creamed coffee. As I continued to evaluate, I just could not get rid of the lip smacking residual sweetness in my mouth. Once I could cut through this, I could detect the hops, but the sweetness was just too overpowering and this is not a malty sweetness, this was residual sweetness; as if the beer did not attenuate out. I think more carbonation could help this a bit, but to be honest, the more I thought about this, the more I kept thinking that this beer was some sort of imperial milk stout!
Tim’s Rank: 5th

Beer #4: Oskar Blues Ten Fidy – This titanic, immensely viscous stout is loaded with inimitable flavors of chocolate-covered caramel and coffee and hides a hefty 98 IBUs underneath the smooth blanket of malt.  Ten FIDY is made with enormous amounts of two-row malt, chocolate malt, roasted barley, flaked oats and hops. Ten FIDY is the ultimate celebration of dark malts and boundary-stretching beer. 98 IBU 10.5% ABV

Dave: I ranked this beer in second place, and for a minute there it was a close call. There was a greater hop character apparent in this beer than the others, but not enough to be off putting. There were also the requisite malt complexities with hints of coffee, roast, chocolate and toffee. I’d like to grab a sixer of this beer and set it back for a few months. I think it might have given North Coast a run for first place if it had just a bit more age on it. But that wasn’t the beer we had in front of us, so Ten FIDY wound up in second. However, I would really like to try this beer on nitro. I think that might round off some of the sharper edges. If you see it around town on a nitro tap do yourself a favor and stop for a pint. Maybe I’ll see you there.
Would I Drink Another: Yes please. 
Dave’s Rank: 2nd
Jason: At this point in the tasting I was starting to doubt myself. I was afraid my nose was deceiving me. I smelled absolutely no roast and detected rubbing alcohol. The liquid coated the glass well enough but it wasn't nearly as thick as Beer #3. As I was drinking this I thought it would pair perfectly with a strong, stinky cheese. There was no hint of sweetness at all which does not lend to balance. Still find it acceptable to drink, just not want I expected. I make it sound unappealing but it was pretty solid.
Jason’s Rank: 3rd
Nathan: Now here are some hops to compete with all this malt flavor! Notes of black licorice and tobacco combine with the expected, but subdued, chocolate and roasted malt flavors. The amplified hopping sets this beer apart and adds to the layers of flavors at play here. Medium mouthfeel, not as thick as the other examples, with some burnt malt character in the finish. Very good beer, but clearly a notch below beer #2 in terms of malt complexity and refinement. Very close to beer #5 in my book, but the hop character pushes it past that beer into second place. 
Nathan’s Rank: 2nd
Tim: Guess the color! The pour had a low light chocolate brown head with a light malty, roast and earthy hop aroma. Very full bodied in the mouth feel, with good carbonation (even with the low head). To me the malt character came across as a little one dimensional, solid, but not very complex. There was both a smooth roast and chocolate notes as expected, with the roast  more prominent. A nice hop bitterness to support this beer, but little hop aroma. Could immediately tell that this was big beer as the alcohol was prominent, not hot or distracting. Overall a very solid beer, but the aroma did not have that in your face character that would be able to push it higher on my ranking. It came across as an extremely fresh, young beer, just out of the fermenter!
Tim’s Rank: 3rd

Beer #5: Bell’s Expedition Stout – One of the earliest examples of the Russian Imperial Stout in the United States, Expedition Stout offers immensely complex flavors crafted specifically with vintage aging in mind, as its profile will continue to mature and develop over the years. A huge malt body is matched to a heady blend of chocolate, dark fruits, and other aromas. Intensely bitter in its early months, the flavors will slowly meld and grow in depth as the beer ages. 10.5% ABV

Dave: Ranked in 4th place on my list, I was a bit surprised by the results. I’ve purchased and consumed Expedition more than once and enjoyed it greatly. But that is the benefit of not having a side-by-side comparison. When paired against the other beers in the flight, it just didn’t have the same delightful character as the others. However, let me take a moment to mention the relatively close ranking of the middle of our field. The beers in spots 2-4 were all very good and the competition was close. Ultimately, not everyone can get a trophy. There are in fact winners and losers (just like in the real world, kiddo) and one of the beers has to be in 4th place. This time around it was Bells Expedition. For me personally, there was a significant licorice flavor, and that’s not one of my favorites. Here again the beauty of this sort of blind tasting is that it’s completely subjective. We’re not scoring beers according to any style guidelines or handing out medals and fancy swag at the end. That gives us the freedom so speak clearly about the things we liked or disliked. Less licorice, more roast and I might have scored it higher on the list.
Would I Drink Another: Probably not.
Dave’s Rank: 4th
Jason: Roasty, sweet aroma with decent lacing around the glass. Almost has the same alcohol scent as Beer #4. Very earthy from the taste and once again all bitterness with no sweetness. I like my Russian Imperial to blend the roast of coffee and chocolate and not lean too heavily in one direction. I could almost mistake this for a black IPA if I didn't know any better. At first I was pretty adamant this was not a beer for me, almost thinking it was the worst of the group. However, after a lengthy rest and a warming of the glass I find myself returning to drink more and more. At the end, I would definitely buy this beer and put it on par with Beer #2 or #4.
Jason’s Rank: 2nd
Nathan: Very nice malt complexity: roasted notes, black licorice, coffee, and bitter chocolate. Low level of citrus hop character and medium lingering hop bitterness. Good carbonation level and very smooth with a nice touch of sweetness to complement the roasted malt character. Thick mouthfeel, good drinkability, and a nice balance between the malt character and hop bitterness. If this had a little more chocolate character and hop flavor, it would have been a contender for the top of my list. But we’re seriously nitpicking now – this is another excellent Russian Imperial Stout.
Nathan’s Rank: 3rd
Tim: Ok, they were all pitch black beers! This beer poured with a low dark tan head and had a rich malty nose with the roasted and chocolate character to support this. Not as bold as beer #2, but still very nice. Very full bodied, roasty, almost coffee like, with a very supportive hop bitterness and a malty, but dry finish. The beer did have a very pronounced alcohol warming, but was not hot. It was a little distracting at first, but with a little more time, this dies down and I believe just adds more complexity to the beer. This was another solid example, just needs some time!
Tim’s Rank: 2nd

And the results are in…….

To determine the overall results, we used a model where the lowest number of points would win (a 1st place vote = 1 point, a 2nd place vote = 2 points, etc). After tallying up the scores, our collective rankings determined the final order:

Fifth Place: Three Floyds Dark Lord (19 points)
three floyds dark lord
Fourth Place: Sierra Nevada Narwhal (16 points)
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Third Place: Bell’s Expedition Stout (11 points)
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Second Place: Oskar Blues Ten Fidy (10 points)
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First Place: North Coast Old Rasputin (4 points)

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And while it doesn’t count in the official rankings, our hostess “reveals” her favorite……

Poppi’s Pick: Bell’s Expedition Stout

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There are two big stories that came out of this tasting for me. First is the rediscovery of a wonderful beer in North Coast’s Old Rasputin. There was a stage in my craft beer drinking evolution where Old Rasputin was a beer I commonly sought out, and an Old Rasputin sign proudly hangs next to the pool table in our basement. But as the number of craft beer options has exploded, it’s very easy to get caught up in constantly trying new things and taking some of these old favorites for granted. I can’t remember the last time I purchased this beer off the shelf, but it certainly won’t take that long again. Along with the straight tasting results we always try to include cost analysis at the end of these because the highest ranking beers are often the most expensive. But at the relatively low price (for a Russian Imperial Stout anyway) of $10.99 for a 4-pack, this aspect only bolsters the case for Old Rasputin in this lineup.

But I suppose the real elephant in the room here is the performance of Dark Lord. It wasn’t the poorest performance of any beer we’ve had in these tastings (the dubious distinction for that belongs to Brooklyn Brown Ale), but it was definitely the most surprising. Reaction to the result may be summed up best in a note from Jason:

I was able to call out Beer #3 as Dark Lord as soon as I smelled it and it was only confirmed by the taste. It is amazing that a beer that I truly enjoy, when placed side by side with beers of the same category it could pale in comparison. The mystique of Dark Lord certainly draws its following, but in a "blind" tasting the simple fact that it could be labeled worst amazed me. Of course, in a pairing of five someone has to be a loser, but that beer? Shocked and amazed. Just proves that there are a lot of great beers in this world to enjoy.

Even with the consistently low rankings, opinions from the panelists about Dark Lord still varied somewhat. Jason and I noted certain qualities that impressed us, while Dave flat out wouldn’t finish his sample. But this ranking clearly came down to a consistent feeling among the panel that the high level of residual sweetness in Dark Lord hurt the drinkability and distracted from the positive qualities. Personally, I had tagged this beer as probably 3rd or 4th in the initial round where we taste them individually. But when compared side by side in a final lineup of this caliber, any notable flaw really stands out. And there’s no getting around it – when considering this beer as a value for your dollar, Dark Lord was a huge disappointment. But I’m not sure that’s even a controversial statement for people who really like this beer. You’re always paying a certain premium for the mystique and a memento of your experience at Dark Lord Day.

We shouldn’t forget about the rest of the lineup – Oskar Blues Ten Fidy and Bell’s Expedition Stout are exceptional beers. Bell’s Expedition in particular exhibits the type of character to suggest it could really be outstanding with some extensive aging. But at a slightly elevated price point, it’s still hard to recommend Ten Fidy ($15.99 for a 4-pack) or Expedition ($17.99 for a 6-pack) over Old Rasputin. Sierra Nevada Narwhal is a worthy value consideration at $10.99 for a 4-pack and will likely develop some of the lacking complexity with some aging.

But if you’re looking for a great Russian Imperial Stout to enjoy in the near future, we can’t recommend Old Rasputin strongly enough. Buy up a good portion of that beer and horde it for yourself. Save the Dark Lord for impressing your friends with rare beer.

Cheers, Nathan

3 comments:

Eric Strader said...

I would tend to agree with Dark Lord being at the bottom of this list as far as my preference for Russian Imperial Stouts. But as for aging, Bell's Expedition Stout is amazing. I had the opportunity a couple of Eccentric Days ago to enjoy a bottle of 1994 Expy with Larry Bell and some others. Ohhh my, that was tasty.

Nathan Compton said...

Outstanding Eric! It would be really interesting to have a full tasting of comparably well-aged varieties. Since we failed to have that foresight, going with 2013 across the board was the only fair approach.

Scott M. Bort said...

Interesting on the DL - I wonder the results if you used a 2012/2011 bottle in lieu of a 2013.

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