Searching for Stout – Imperial Stout

The first Imperial Stout I ever tasted was Samuel Smith’s. Now, there are those people who’ll be quick to point out that it’s not really an Imperial Stout since it’s less than 8% ABV; but at the time my definition of a stout was narrow, limited to the Guinnesses and Murphys of the world, and this was something completely different for me. Truth be told, it wasn’t love at first sip. It was strong, sweet, chocolaty – I wanted beer not dessert. Bad first impressions notwithstanding, that initial encounter with my palate planted a seed somewhere in my subconscious that has since grown into a near obsession – a primal urge that comes knocking with the first cold days of fall.

Without going into great historical detail about this beer style or getting into an argument about where the term ‘Imperial’ was first used, the Imperial Stout we know today is based off of a style of export beer first brewed in England during the 18th century. Still often labelled as a ‘Russian Imperial Stout’, the style had been very popular in Russia especially among royalty. Its bitterness and high alcohol content act as preservatives, but it has been argued that these elements may have had more to do with the palate preference of their Russian customers than its ability to survive the long journey to Saint Petersburg. As mentioned above, Imperial Stouts are rich, roasted malt driven beers that take on complex aromas and flavours that evolve with age. With a full bodied and palate-dominating mouthfeel, it may take some getting used to.

I’ve been craving Stouts since late-September; not-so-secretly cursing the dozen-odd brands of Pumpkin Beers that were crowding the specialty shelves at the LCBO and, as I see it, preventing me from getting my beloved winter-seasonals. Naturally, as a man of great endeavour (right?) I managed to get my hands on some great dark beers to tide me over during those equally dark days; beers like Cameron’s Obsidian Imperial PorterChurch Key Brewing’s Honey and Oats Stout and even a (much too small) sampler of Bellwood’s Hellwoods Imperial Stout. Nevertheless, we are finally entering into the season of Stout and over the past weekend I celebrated accordingly.

November 8th was ‘International Stout Day‘, which is as good an excuse as any to have a pint of the black stuff – and I decided to start early. I was in Montreal on the 7th, but would be spending most of the following day driving to Guelph. It was obvious to me that a visit to Brasserie Dieu du Ciel! was in order.

Péché Mortel

If you love beer, and you ever happen to have some free time in the city, Dieu du Ciel is a must visit. They have a wide and ever changing selection of their brilliantly crafted beers available on tap and in cask, which always makes for tough decisions. This time around my decision was already made for me. With time for just one beer, I decided to order a Péché Mortel Coffee Imperial Stout. This is a beer that I was quite familiar with. I have often had it in bottle, but never on tap – and the difference was noticeable. Péché Mortel is a masterful beer; rich and creamy with an intoxicating (9.5%) aroma of smokey espresso, chocolate malts, vanilla and anise. To taste, you are treated to a fantastic blend of roasty coffee, nutty, dark chocolate truffle and mulling spices, which are joined by an orange-peel hop bitterness and sweet notes of vanilla and dried fruit. The alcohol content deceives you as it is well masked in the depth of flavour and only mildly warming.

Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus

Fast-forward one night. After a relatively quick trip down the 401 I found myself at a familiar haunt in Guelph; Baker Street Station. Along with some good friends, I was ready for International Stout Day proper. While I quite enjoyed trying Silversmith’s Oyster Stout for the first time that evening, this article is about Imperial Stouts. As such, I present Sawdust City’s Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus. Now I notice that it has finally made its way to Ottawa stores, but being that I was out of the province for the week prior, this was my first chance to try it. My lone hope was that the beer would be as awesome as its name and it certainly didn’t disappoint. There are aromas consist of burnt coffee, chocolate, licorice root and herbs with a tickling of alcohol. There is an interesting balance between the usual culprit, dark roasted malt flavours that mix with a potent herbal character, which work really well for me. There was also a nice element of caramelized sugar or burnt cane sugar that sort of wrapped its way around everything. Though quite sweet, the presence of the alcohol is unmistakable. I’ve since come across people who have been upset with the lack of head retention from this beer, but that is not uncharacteristic of the style. That said, I believe that this brew could benefit from a little time in the cellar, and I fully intend to throw a few bottles down there.

Wellington Russian Imperial

The next day we went over to Wellington Brewery for their Saturday afternoon tasting. It was a very enjoyable visit. The staff were very friendly, and were happy to talk beer and answer my many questions, the place was lively and, oh yeah, there were free samples of beer! I highly recommend checking it out sometime. On tap, they had a very good line-up of beers, among them their Imperial Russian Stout. Not at all harsh, or overly adventurous, their execution is by the book. There is nothing that really makes you scratch your head about this one; the flavours are predictable and well balanced. Perhaps a slightly milder overall flavour than the beers above, there is a real drink-ability. Aromas of dark chocolate, coffee and dried fruit. A fair amount of hop bitterness and flavours of creamy chocolate, coffee bean, burnt toffee, mild licorice and date. Looks beautiful in the glass, but more importantly tastes great too.

So looking back at my first experience with Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, I have to ask myself: ‘which of these beers might have been a better ‘gateway-stout’ for a first-timer?’ I can’t promise anything, but I would guess Péché Mortel. For me, Péché Mortel doesn’t show its hand right away. It doesn’t attack, but rather has a gradual crescendo of flavour. For someone unfamiliar with the Imperial Stout style, it might be difficult to discern the bitterness and especially the high alcohol content; probably a good thing. In contrast, I feel as though Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus and Wellington Imperial Russian Stout are beers better suited to those more accustomed to bigger beers. Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus has more attack. The hop bitterness and alcohol are very present, and immediately so. Wellington’s Imperial Russian Stout packs less of an instantaneous punch, however, the high bitterness is not buried under as much sweetness as the Dieu du Ciel effort. With that said, each of the above are worth a try and you may find your experience completely different.

Lately I have been very lucky to have tried a number of other phenomenal Imperial Stouts like Oscar Blue’s Brewery’s ‘Ten Fidy’ and Clown Shoes’ Blaecorn Unidragon, with more great beers like St. Ambroise’s 2013 Russian Imperial Stout and De Molen’s Rasputin waiting patiently in my cupboard. If you’re like me, already a huge fan of the style, happy stout season! If you haven’t tried Imperial Stouts yet, you should. Hopefully that seed will plant itself in you too!