Imperialism: Black Sheep v Brewdog v Bristol v Buxton v Hardknott v Magic Rock v Mikkeller v Thornbridge
The adjective “imperial” in Imperial Stouts originally referred to export of these dark, high ABV English beers to the Russian Empire and the Baltic countries. However, it also seems an appropriate adjective in terms of its alternative meanings as having supreme authority, or being outstanding in size or quality. This is reflected in the subsequent appropriation of the adjective for “Imperial IPAs”.
Due to their uncompromising ABV, one should generally avoid an Imperial pint of Imperial Stout, much less open eight bottles in a week. However, in the name of art and of clearing the dark and frightening end of my beer shelf, I decided to take on the following:
Black Sheep Imperial Russian Stout (8.5% ABV)
This was brewed for the 2011 Great Baltic Adventure, which Pete Brown participated in. It had a creamy nicotine stain head, liquorice and dark chocolate nose, thick mouthfeel and a vinous, raisin and liquorice taste. It coats your mouth and throat like a pleasant boozy treacle, more sour than bitter. Black Sheep have brewed what I would expect of an Imperial stout: that rich alcoholic liquorice that interests me on occasion but I’m rarely in the mood for.
BrewDog Tokyo* (18.2% ABV)
This “Intergalactic Fantastic Oak Aged Stout” is very much one of the big boys, both in ABV and reputation. It has a very yellow head, with vanilla and maybe a slight woodiness detectable in the aroma. The taste is surprising, much sweeter and lighter than you would expect, although the mouthfeel is also quick thick. The sweetness conceals a little dryness, perhaps from the oak chips? Reading the bottle tells me it also apparently contains jasmine and cranberries, so with that and the vanilla and oak chips, there’s a lot more than just malt, hops and yeast contributing to the flavour. This results in a very boozy dessert in a glass, which becomes almost too thick and sweet to enjoy in quantity without, say, a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Bristol Beer Factory Ultimate Stout (7.7% ABV)
Ah, now this one confused me. One of BBB’s “Twelve Stouts of Christmas”, I assumed this was going to be their attempt at a classic Imperial Stout, perhaps in the vein of the Black Sheep. However something about the aroma reminded me of a Belgian Dubbel, with an unusually prominent yeast character carrying through into the taste. There was also a a vinous chocolate flavour with with a lack of hop bitterness on the swallow, but rather some sourness. In fact the label, read subsequently, clearly stated that it was made with a Belgian yeast. Imperial in a distinctly Belgian manner, and enjoyable in the same vein as Marble’s Chocolate Dubbel.
Buxton Tsar (9.5% ABV)
This “Imperial Russian Stout” aligns perfectly with my tastes. A dirty brown head and good aroma which preempts the welcome dry, slightly fruity hoppiness on a roasty malt base. It’s not sweet like many of the others, although it is a little bit oily; not overly so. A modern take on the classic style, expressed without any fancy additions. Just the beer to enjoy while the sun sets on your own empire.
Hardknott Vitesse Noir (11% ABV)
This “Triple Imperial Vanilla Mocha Stout” is in the vein of the BrewDog Tokyo with its use of vanilla, but with the further addition of coffee. The head is quite thin and the aroma is of a sweet black espresso. The taste leads with the coffee, giving way to sour fruit and liquorice. Not noticeably boozy, but with a quite silky mouthfeel. It’s a nice beer, with the coffee and vanilla lifting the experience above the heavy stouty richness.
Magic Rock Bearded Lady (10.5% ABV)
This “Imperial Brown Stout” has a coffee-coloured head and dark chocolate aroma. Slightly burning on the first taste, presumably from the alcohol, this gives way to bitter chocolate and then a noticeable hop bitterness on the aftertaste. Further tastes combine hops with dark chocolate deliciously. Very decadent and enjoyable.
Mikkeller Black Hole (13.1% ABV)
I paired this particular bottle with a documentary about the Higgs boson. However, in short order, it became quite hard to concentrate on particle physics. It had a big dense brown head, probably the largest of the eight. It smelled big, perfumed and malty. Whilst it was certainly thick and rich, you could easily convince yourself it wasn’t as strong as it is. After all, not many beers are this strong. Throughout, there is a sweet spiciness lifting it, which again probably owes a lot to the addition of vanilla and coffee.
Thornbridge St Petersburg (7.7% ABV)
“Imperial Russian Stout” with a cappuccino head. The aroma is floral and hoppy, which carries through to the taste. There’s a dryness here, like in a good Irish stout. It had a much lighter body than many of the others, with levels of hops to malt that, in relative terms, takes it closer to the territory of black IPAs. My lasting impression was of pot pourri and coffee, which probably doesn’t convey how good this beer really is.
So, what are the lessons of empire? Well it seems that these bottles fall into three categories:
1. Imperial Stouts with a thick liquorice profile dominated by the rich, dark malts (Black Sheep).
2. Imperial Stouts with a big hit of largely New World hops (whilst I do appreciate that the first Imperial Stouts were also very hoppy) to compete with the malt profile (St Petersburg, Tsar, Bearded Lady).
3. Imperial Stouts which add unusual ingredients to compete with the flavour of the malt and an elevated ABV (Vitesse Noir, Tokyo, Black Hole, to some extent Bristol’s Ultimate Stout).
My preference is for the dry or fruity bitterness of the middle category. The strong-but-sweet vanilla-infused beers were certainly nice, but I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth and find myself coming back to hops at every opportunity. Thornbridge St Petersburg, Buxton Tsar and Magic Rock Bearded Lady will always be very welcome on my beer shelf.