Home > Beer > Imperialism: Black Sheep v Brewdog v Bristol v Buxton v Hardknott v Magic Rock v Mikkeller v Thornbridge

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.

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  1. January 15, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    What an epic week of beers Nik, I admire your “dedication” to duty… 😉

    • January 16, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to get pie-eyed.

  2. January 15, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Sounds like my perfect week! Good write up. and there’s nothing wrong with a pint of the stuff… 😉

    • January 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      Of course you were my pusher for most of these!

  3. January 15, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Wow no wonder you haven’t blogged for a while! That’s one heck of a lineup. I’ve had the majority of them, have the black hole sat on my shelf with a bottle of black sheep. Just the bearded lady to get hold of really.

    • January 16, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      In my next blog I think I’ll compare bottles of sparkling mineral water.

  4. January 16, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Excellent work Nick. I’ve tried the Tsar, Bearded Lady (cask), Ultimate and St Petersburg and enjoyed them all, particularly the Bearded Lady (which is a risky statement taken out of context). To do these in a week is admirable and to drink them solo too! Really lokoking fwd to Vitesse Noir and the Lady once more (bottle). P.s. love the thought of clearing the dark and frightening end of your beer shelf. Might have to do the same 🙂

    • January 16, 2012 at 5:52 pm

      I did have the wife’s assistance on a few of these, although most of them weren’t really her thing. As I recall she also liked the St Petersburg and the Tsar.

      I genuinely did need to clear some space. That end of the shelf always gets kept for a rainy day whilst the IPAs, pales and tripels are on constant turnover.

  5. January 17, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Always good to read comparative tastings — nothing like taking on several of the same type in close succession to really understand what makes them different, and where they overlap.

    In the days when he used to comment on our blog, Ron Pattinson used to get quite shirty about citrus hops in strong stouts: coffee and grapefruit don’t go was his motto. We used to argue it was more chocolate orange, but he would have none of it.

    • January 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      I can see Ron’s point, but i just prefer that fresh or dry bitterness to stick out. Mind you, I’d put citrus hops in my coffee if I could!

  6. January 18, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Christ, your a glutton for punishment, dude! I enjoyed the BS Russian, but it was a big’un alright. Tokyo* less so. Not had the Mikeller, or the MRBL, but based on your notes, I’ll have to get my hands on one! Now, where’s that Alka Seltzer….!

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