A Drink on the Dark Side

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Russian imperial stout, an ebony-colored brew, is as impervious to light as motor oil and almost as viscous. Specialty malts, some roasted to within a hair's breadth of charring, give it a tremendous depth of flavor, and the higher alcohol content (typically between 8 and 12 percent by volume) makes it the ultimate winter warmer.

This was the first beer style to bear the adjective "imperial," and its pedigree dates to the glory days of Russia's Romanov dynasty. Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 to 1725, opened his country to the West, and visitors began returning with tales of the Russian nobility's tremendous thirst -- and tolerance -- for alcohol. Might they enjoy beer as well as vodka? By the late 18th century, 10 London breweries were exporting to the Baltic lands.

An ordinary porter wouldn't survive the long sea voyage in Arctic weather, so English brewers made a version with extra hops and more alcohol, brewed to appeal to distilled-spirits drinkers. (Courage Imperial Russian Stout, a brand no longer available, boasted on its label that it was originally brewed in the late 18th century for the empress Catherine the Great.)

Wars, tariffs and changing tastes eventually put an end to the trade. But in the 1980s, the Samuel Smith Brewery in Yorkshire, England, introduced its own version of the style, this time for export to America. Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout has a vinous aroma and a flavor that hints of purple fruit with a whiff of freshly ground coffee.

Many craft breweries in the United States market an imperial stout as a winter seasonal, but the North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif., is one of the few to brew the style year-round. Its Old Rasputin smells of tar and licorice, and the piny West Coast hops add a spicy counterpoint to the espresso and bittersweet chocolate flavors. The Russian legend on the label translates to "It takes time to make good friends," says Doug Moody, the brewery's senior vice president.

The 2007 Legend Imperial Stout from the Legend Brewing Co. in Richmond is less hoppy than previous versions, but it has a rich flavor of bittersweet chocolate and an elegant smoothness from the use of flaked oats, a nontraditional ingredient for this style.

Drinking Storm King, from the Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa., is like washing down a slice of fudge cake with a double shot of espresso. Black Chocolate Stout, a perennial favorite from the Brooklyn Brewery, doesn't contain cocoa products but derives its chocolate-caramel flavor and roasty finish solely from specialty malts. Stronger and more intensely roasty is Expedition Stout from Bell's Brewery in Comstock, Mich., with notes of plums, prunes and resiny hops.

Taking this style into the stratosphere is World Wide Stout from the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del. At 18 percent alcohol by volume, it's "the world's strongest dark beer," according to Dogfish President Sam Calagione. Uncapping the bottle, you're met with a blast of burnt molasses and alcohol, followed by a sweet, fruity, portlike flavor that will evolve and attain greater complexity with age. "I had a 2000 batch recently, and the taste is amazing," Calagione says.

Imperial stouts pair well with Stilton cheese, walnuts, fruitcake soaked in rum, high-end chocolates and any super-rich dessert. According to the Web site of Merchant du Vin, importer of Samuel Smith beers, the brewery's imperial stout "easily holds its own in the company of cigars." Break out the brandy snifters, and let's have a nightcap.

BURP revisited: After reading my column on the home-brewers' club Brewers United for Real Potables ("Someone Belched, and a Club Was Born," Dec. 5), one reader took me to task for failing to mention that one of the club's original officers was Dan McCoubrey, a longtime editor on The Post's sports copy desk. Winston Wood of Paris, Va., writes that the late McCoubrey was known for his legendary Saint Patrick's Day parties, "fueled by a special home-brew" and homemade beef stew.

It also turns out that naming the club involved more than the inspiration from a single belch. According to an article in the summer 1982 Zymurgy (the journal of the American Homebrewers Association) by McCoubrey and The Post's Paul Freedman, members racked their brains over the course of three meetings, rejecting such monikers as the Federal Beero of Intoxication (wrong image) and the Brewbirds of Hoppiness before settling on BURP.

Home-brewers seem to enjoy bad puns as much as they do good beer.

Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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