When we’re interested in brewing a new style, we generally look for a good example of the style to try. As the post title suggests, today’s research topic is Russian Imperial Stout.
According to ratebeer.com, Old Rasputin is one of the best around. So we toddled off to the local grocery, and got a four pack to share while brewing my (not imperial) oatmeal coffee stout. The Old Rasputin bottles were dated 9/3/14, so it was a pretty recent batch. Brewed by North Coast Brewing, out of Fort Bragg, CA, this hefty brew weighs in at 9% ABV, which actually makes it lighter than Sierra Nevada’s version, Narwhal.
Right. You’d probably like to hear about how the beer is to drink. Old Rasputin tastes pretty much like a regular stout. It has the characteristic bitterness that you can sort of feel all over the tongue, as opposed to the sharp, back-of-tongue jab from a good IPA. The color is perfect: black with an actually tan head. This is what’s really meant by the phrase, ‘black-and-tan,’ not that silly mixed-beer trava-sha-mockery requiring special equipment and whatnot. The head consists of fine bubbles, almost like champagne, but longer lasting. So, yeah. Rasputin tastes like a stout.
But remember that 9% ABV? It sneaks up on you. A more usual stout—a dry Irish, say—has a 4% -5% ABV. It’s a nice, friendly beer. The kind you’d invite over for a bit of craic. old Rasputin looks and tastes like that, but then there’s the alcohol vapor on the exhale, and when you decide to be so foolish as to stand, your Pylorus valve opens up, inviting your body along to the party. Which is about the time you realize that you’ve been befriended by a mostly harmless, but potentially very dangerous retired Russian operative.
That’s my take on it, anyway. But I mentioned that we shared the four-pack, yes? This is what my partner in crime had to say about Old Rasputin.
“On first impression, it tastes like a stout. No duh, you say? Really, it tastes more like a hoppy American stout than an imperial. But wait, there’s that sweetness. Breathe out, feel the vaporous tinge of 9% ABV. Clean, but not overly so; I taste a hint of “unpleasant” acridity, but it isn’t bad. No coffee and cream. If I were to wax poetical, I would say,
How smoothly in the mouth, she,
Obsidian and strong;
Quietly seduces me.”
North Coast brewing does an outstanding job with their imperial stout, and if I can brew one that smooth and delicious, I’ll be a very happy—and probably tipsy—woman.
We weren’t content to limit our research to one beer, so we also tried Sierra Nevada’s Narwhal. Ratebeer.com gives Old Rasputin 100 overall and 99 for style, while Narwhal gets 99 overall, and 92 for style. Being a fan of Sierra Nevada, I had to try their version, too.
At 10.2% ABV, Narwhal is a rather strong brew. This probably explains why it lacks some of the smoothness I noted in Old Rasputin. Even from the first sip, Narwhal has a bite you can feel. It envelopes the tongue, then warms everything on its way down the gullet. There’s definitely a stronger roast flavor to this one, lending it a somewhat more astringent taste. Thanks to this, I didn’t enjoy the Narwhal quite as much as the Old Rasputin, though it does very well for having such high alcohol content.
Great Divide Brewing Co.’s Yeti is the last entry on our Imperial Stout research list. The Denver, CO brewery produces a line of Yeti stouts, including an oatmeal version. Though I’m very curious about that one, the iteration under consideration today is the original, winner of two Silver Medals (2009, 2005), and a Bronze Medal (2008) at the Great American Beer Festival. Ratebeer.com gives it 100 overall, and 98 for the style.
From the description on the bottle, I expected an unusually hoppy taste for a stout, with perhaps an overdose of roast flavor. Both suppositions were incorrect. Yeti pours black, with a rich brown head that indicates a lack of roasted barley. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of this beautiful brew in the glass—I was too eager to drink it to stop and take one. At 9.5% ABV, Yeti is between Old Rasputin and Narwhal for alcohol content, but leans closer to Old Rasputin in flavor. It’s smooth, a characteristic I really appreciate in strong brews, and rich with roast chocolate and coffee notes. While Yeti boasts 75 IBUs, the taste is malt-forward, with a pleasant hint of hops, as I’d expect from a stout. In Ben’s words, “If Rasputin is the benchmark, Yeti came very close. It tasted like a Russian Imperial Stout should taste.”
This concludes our Russian Imperial Stout research. Stay tuned for an entry on our own attempt to brew this style.