Russian Imperial Stouts are a decadent thing: High in alcohol, complex in construction, and dense with flavors of chocolate, coffee, dark fruit, and burnt malt. For hundreds of years, they have been the definition of a sipping beer.
During the recent decade of the craft beer boom, Russian Imperial Stouts have cultivated a sizable following. At the national level, some of the most coveted beers (or “whales,” if you will) are imperial stouts, albeit those typically aged in bourbon barrels and conditioned with some combination of spices, coffee, chocolate, and vanilla. See: Firestone Walker’s Parabola, 3 Floyd’s Dark Lord, and Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout from Cigar City.
But you don’t need to fly to Tampa or make internet friends to try some great representations of the styles. Here’s a look at some of the best being brewed locally.
Port City’s Colossal VI
Each winter, Port City celebrates its anniversary with a Colossal beer.
“It’s always something big and dark and boozy,” founder Bill Butcher told me a few years ago. “It’s a fun and creative project for the brewers.”
The Colossal series has also produced some one of the Alexandria brewery’s most renowned beers. Three of the five nabbed awards at the Great American Beer Festival: Colossal One (a Belgian Imperial Stout), Colossal Two (a smoked Porter), and Colossal V (an English-style Old Ale). (For those keeping score at home, Colossal III was a Heller Bock, and Colossal IV was, fittingly, a quad.) (These are also very good beers, and Port City occasionally rebrews them.) (Also, they weren’t submitted to GABF for competition, so don’t get it twisted.)
Now, approaching its sixth anniversary, Port City will release its first Russian Imperial Stout. At 10.2%, it’s the most colossal Colossal yet. A press release describes it as “inky black with a tan cap, the beer bursts with notes of cocoa powder, freshly roasted coffee, and leather.” Like last year, Port City will bottle this Colossal.
I’ll be writing about Colossal VI in an upcoming Freshly Tapped profile. Look for it around the time of the beer’s February 2 release.
Lickinghole Creek’s Virginia Black Bear
Lickinghole Creek’s Virginia Black Bear has twice took home the gold in the Strong Ale category at the Virginia Craft Brewers Cup. The rich, complex beer is brewed with ten different specialty malts, and while it’s outstanding on its own, it’s probably best known as the base beer for Enlightened Despot – the sought-after, bourbon barrel-aged version.
In addition to that beer, though, Virginia Black Bear has a number of variant cubs: Vanilla Virginia Black Bear, Chai Tea Virginia Black Bear, Coconut Virginia Black Bear, and Coffee & Coconut Virginia Black Bear. Oh, and there are similar variants for Enlightened Despot. If you can’t tell, they’re wild about their variants down in Goochland.
If you want to get your hands on some of their bottles, you need to head to Arlington or Alexandria – the brewery doesn’t yet distribute in D.C. I picked up the pictured bottle in Charlottesville this weekend, and after cellaring for an extensive two-day period, I consumed it the other night. Patience is a virtue I do not possess.
Painless was Ocelot’s 11.5% Russian Imperial Stout. If didn’t get a chance to try it, well, you’re out of luck, because like most of its beers, Ocelot only brewed it once.
Don’t cry, though: At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Dulles brewery will be releasing bottles of the bourbon barrel-aged version. This iteration spent eight months in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, where it was kissed by angels and massaged by God. Or, that’s what it tasted like based on a recent sampling at RFD (and an advanced copy of the bottle). Point being: Barrel-aged Painless is absolutely worth the trip to the brewery when the day comes.
Ocelot may be best know for its IPAs, but this beer, along with its recent Baltic Porter (Powers of Observation), prove they’re just adept at the dark arts.
Mad Fox’s Crazy Ivan
According to Wikipedia, an infallible repository of information, Crazy Ivan is a Cold War term used to describe two different things. Most commonly, it is the name “given to a maneuver used by Soviet submarines to clear their baffles to see if they were being followed. The second use was a catch-all term for the possibility of a rogue Soviet leader committing to military action, typically in reference to a limited launch of ICBMs against the US.”
There was also a mid-90s video game called Krazy Ivan.
Mad Fox’s Crazy Ivan, meanwhile, is a 9.0% Russian Imperial Stout. The Falls Church brewery has done a number of variants of the beer, too, including bourbon barrel aged, soured, and vanilla. The malt bill is “comprised of imported English pale, crystal, brown and black malts with a good amount of roasted barley and flaked oats. Hopping is a very generous helping of English variety First Gold.”
If you’re looking to try Crazy Ivan, your best chance to be on the lookout for Mad Fox events. They’ve been known to tap a keg of it for anniversaries and other special occasions.
The founder of Aslin Beer Company recently discussed the origins of their 10% imperial stout, Deceiver, with me as part of a Tap Takeover profile. Allow me to quote me.
A handful of Aslin’s recipes are vestiges of the rough-and-rumble world of Faceoffs.
Faceoffs were how [Kai] Leszkowicz, [Andrew] Kelley, and [Richard] Thompson challenged themselves during their homebrew days: head-to-head competitions that pitted one brewer against another in producing a particular style.
Once Aslin was up and running, the best of these recipes were scaled up to the production system. Some didn’t translate. Others did. One such success was an imperial stout called Deceiver.
“We had done a stout Faceoff series, and it was Drew versus me,” Leszkowicz recalls. “My stout was Deceiver, and his was some shit that we don’t do now.”
The 10% imperial stout is built on a malt bill rich with soft roasted notes, strong chocolate flavors, and a hint of natural vanilla. And just as the Aslin co-founders did when they were still brewing in the proverbial basement, they’ve used Deceiver as a jumping-off point for a number of variants.
There’s a chocolate and marshmallow version called S’More Sout. There’s the maple syrup twist Cocoa Mapalm. There’s the spiced Mexican Hot Chocolate. And there’s Macarooned.
“We went on a rampage with all of the variants,” Leszkowicz says. “When the brewery first opened, we were pulling off gallons of Deceiver, filling mason jars, and doing the same ratios of the additions.”
Macarooned is brewed with the addition of toasted flaked coconut, and as the name suggests, it recalls the flavor of a chocolate macaroon. (As a homebrew, it was originally dubbed Macaruined, because the booziness could wreak havoc on your day, but Aslin scaled back the punniness.) Like the rest of the Deceiver variants, Macarooned bears Thompson’s mark most.
“The stouts are Richard’s domain,” Leszkowicz says. “He really knows the ratios and what elements of what ingredients work best played against the Deceiver series.”
Thompson attributes his interest, in part, to his interest in cooking, which he picked up from his mother and grandmother.
“I have flavor profiles that I like to put together,” he shares. “And I love a good coconut stout. I’ve had a bunch of bad ones, too, where the coconut tastes like suntan lotion. I thought that toasting the coconut first would add a lot – and help us avoid the suntan lotion thing. Now, Macarooned is pretty much everything that I would want out a coconut stout, with the exception of it being bourbon barrel-aged, which we’ll get to someday.”
Cocoa Mapalm and Macarooned have each seen packaged release at the brewery in the past month (the latter in 500 mL bottles; the former in 16-oz cans). You can probably expect more of these variants soon, too. Like everything Aslin produces, though, you’ll need to travel to the Herndon brewery to secure your cans or growler fills.
Denizens’ Shirtless Horseman
Denizens’ Shirtless Horseman is a 9% Russian Imperial Stout that, per the Silver Spring brewery, possesses “a bold blend of aromas and flavors from the dark malts. Notes of dark chocolate, dark roast coffee, and toffee permeate the complex flavor profile stemming from the ten different malts used in the recipe.”
In September, the brewery released Chapless Horseman, a version of Shirtless Horseman that’s chilled out in Woodford Reserve Bourbon Barrels for 10 months, picking up all of those rich whiskey and oak notes. If you stopped by their booth at Snallygaster, then you know this beer is the truth.
There is no “regular” version of Duclaw’s Retribution. Every drop of the 11.2% imperial stout goes into charred white oak bourbon barrels, where it’s aged for six months. Notably, the beer is bottled in individual runs – rather than blended – “making the beer from each barrel a unique drinking experience.” (Or something like that.)
The Baltimore brewery releases the beer once a year at its Day of Retribution party in November. This beer no longer goes into distribution, so that’s the only way to get it. In addition to the straight-up bourbon barrel version, the brewery also sells pumpkin and chocolate cherry versions. (I’ve tasted some vertical with DuClaw rep Chris “Dolfan” VanDeWeert, and that chocolate cherry just might be my favorite.)