Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Original Extreme Beer: The Russian Imperial Stout

Written by  Jim Brown
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Imperial Stouts: Kuhnhenn Brewing Company Solar Eclipse & Big Rock Chophouse Flying Buffalo Imperial Stout

In today’s beer lingo, the words big and flavorful have taken a back seat to terms like intense, extreme, and the often used “imperial”. For over 250 years, one style, Russian Imperial Stout, has been living up to and often exceeding those descriptors. This big and dark beer started life in English breweries and evolved into a style that would allow it to survive the trip to Russia and the Baltic States. Early attempts to ship beer from England resulted in the receipt of spoiled beer by the Imperial Court of Russia. To deliver a drinkable product, brewers increased the amount of both alcohol and hops in the brew, both ingredients acted as preservatives. The recipients of this big rich brew were delighted to say the least. The isolationist tariffs that the Russian Government imposed in the 1820s applied to all imports, except stout. Now that is a testament to the love for this intense brew.
Bell's Brewery Expedition Stout & Tri-City Brewing Giant SlayerFast forward to today and we are into a renaissance era for Russian Imperial Stout. Just like other almost extinct styles, the craft brewing movement has resurrected this style and given it an American feel. Today’s Imperial Stouts are dark brown to a deep black color and sport a nose of rich, complex, malt, roast, fruit, and alcohol. The flavor and mouth feel is intense and full. This is truly a big and dark ale! Another benefit of the high alcohol and hopping level is the extended life and suitability of aging this beer.

New Holland Brewing Company Night Tripper Imperial StoutImperial Stout is alive and well in Michigan. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) lists two Michigan products as their classic commercial examples. These two products are Bell’s Expedition Stout and Founder’s Imperial Stout. The BJCP guidelines also suggest an alcohol content of 8-12%, bitterness levels of 50-90 International Bitterness Units (IBU), and dark brown to black in color. Bell’s (Kalamazoo) Expedition Stout may be the oldest example brewed in Michigan and weighs in at 10.5% alcohol. Bell’s website claims this liquid to have an unlimited shelf life and this beer can be found aging in many cellars through out the Midwest. Founder’s (Grand Rapids) Imperial Stout also weighs in at 10.5% and has 90 IBU to add balance. Also from the west side of the State, Arcadia (Battle Creek) has been making their Imperial Stout and vintage dating each bottle for many years. New Holland (Holland) produces Night Tripper at 10.8% version that is released each year on Fat Tuesday. Moving to the east side of the State, Big Rock Chophouse (Birmingham) produces Flying Buffalo Imperial Stout which weighs in at a hefty 11.5%. Kuhnhenn Brewing Company (Warren) makes Solar Eclipse and Tri City Brewing (Bay City) brews Giant Slayer. Both the Kuhnhenn and the Tri City product are available in barrel aged versions.

That is just a sampling of the Great Beer State’s offerings. Get out and try one or more of Michigan’s Imperial Stouts and experience the original extreme.