DRINK AND BE MERRY
few years ago my friends Bobby and his son Michael came to me with a proposition . Bobby had just purchased a freshly emptied bourbon barrel online from a distillery and they wanted me to join them in brewing an imperial stout to age in this barrel . Typical bourbon barrels are 53 gallons and this was small in comparison at only 15 gallons ( too small for a brewery ,
but perfect for a home brew project ). We ’ d all pitch in on the ingredients and the work and after about eight months or so we would each have about two cases of barrel aged super-stout to take home . Sweet ! Brewing with friends is fun on its own , the fact you get beer at the end is a bonus , and this beer would be better than a bonus . I didn ’ t need to be asked twice , I was in ! We all met up early and brewed until after dark . We made about 20 gallons of what looked like black syrup , added the yeast , and set it up to ferment . A few weeks later we filled up the barrel and left it in Bobby ’ s air conditioned workshop to do its thing .
The imperial stout , a strong , thick , rich , and flavorful brew , historically is considered a Russian imperial stout . Not because it hails from the breweries of Mother Russia , it is a very English invention . It gained its Russian moniker because of its popularity with the Russian imperial court and particularly Empress Catherine the Great . Reviewing the original recipe from Thrale ’ s Anchor Brewery shows us that this ale was over 10 % alcohol and used 10 pounds of hops per barrel making it strong , black , and bitter .
Catherine ’ s love of the brew may be what made it world famous . But it was her father-in-law , Peter the Great , who should be given the credit for introducing English beer to the Russian court . In 1698 Peter traveled to England on a diplomatic mission and while there gained a fondness for English beer . His work there did much to widen trade between the two countries bringing beer to the Baltics . Over the next several decades , porter , a dark rich brew , was gaining in popularity in England and finding its way to Russia . The trip there is a long one so with demand steadily increasing , measures had to be taken to insure the beer didn ’ t spoil . Porter led to stout porter which in turn led to extra stout porter . Making the beer stronger helped to keep it fresh while protecting it from freezing , and adding more hops reduced spoilage further . Making the beer sturdier also made the beer richer and more flavorful , enhancing demand .
Later Russian breweries would make their own versions of the imperial stout called a “ Baltic porter ” with much of the same characteristics . Baltic porters are lagers however , resulting from the Russian brewers fondness for the Czech and German style cold-fermenting yeast . Cold fermentation produces a very clean finish as opposed to the fruity finish we find in the English style warm-fermenting yeast .
The original Thrale ’ s stout that was brewed for Catherine the Great continued to be brewed until 1993 under several different names as breweries and licenses changed hands over two centuries . Beer importer Merchant du Vin brought the style to the US in the early 1980 ’ s
Imperial Stout Story by Chris Keller with courtesy photos
Chris Keller has worked in beer sales for a distributor , as a brewer for Saint Arnold Brewing Co . in Houston , and is the owner of Pint and Barrel Drafthouse in Palestine , Texas . when they encouraged the old English brewery Samuel Smith to brew the classic style for import into the American market . This was when craft brewing in the United States was in its infancy and Samuel Smith ’ s Imperial Stout undoubtedly inspired American brewers with this bold beer and it ’ s colorful history . American brewers quickly followed with bold examples frequently giving them Russian names and references .
Imperial stout has a hefty weight , thick lingering gray or white head , ink black complexion , great strength , and bitterness that ’ s balanced by residual sweetness . It ’ s brewed with large amounts of specialty dark roasted malts giving the beer rich coffee , chocolate , and molasses flavors . Frequently these flavors are enhanced by adding coffee , chocolate , and / or molasses . Oatmeal can be added to provide a silky mouthfeel . Dark fruits like plums , raisins , and cherries can enhance the already present dark fruit flavors . Chilies can add a spicy kick . Even peanut butter has been used successfully in these beers !
Of all the attributes the Russian imperial stout has , the one that I think most makes this beer supremely iconic is its ability to improve with age . If kept properly an imperial stout can be aged for decades . Many times breweries will do their own careful aging at the brewery either through cellaring , barrel aging , or aging on oak staves . Barrel and oak stave aging adds flavors like vanilla , caramel , clove , coconut , and tannins ( those puckering flavors found in red wine and tea ) to the beer . Barrels that previously held spirits have become very popular to age imperial stout . Spirits like rum and whiskey break down the cellular structure of the wood pulling out the natural sugars and improving the flavor of the spirit as it matures . Those barrels when empty are highly sought after for aging beer . With the wood further “ prepared ” by the spirits , more of those flavors I mentioned above can be imparted to the beer . In addition to the wood flavors , the flavor of the original spirit will also be very apparent . Bourbon barrels are the ones most commonly used , but new oak , rum , other types of whiskey , sherry , and wine barrel aged imperial stouts can be found .
About eight months into aging our Russian imperial stout , we determined that it was time for the sacred ritual of “ barrel tasting .” We entered our “ barrel room ,” prepared our tasting vessels , and assembled our samples . The beer had mellowed into an over 12 % ( alcohol content ) thing of beauty . The smaller size of the barrel meant that more of the beer had contact with the wood giving it a chocolaty sweetness with bourbon on the back and amazing coconut overtones . Our beer was ready to be bottled at long last . We siphoned the beer from the barrel , allowed it to condition and carbonate for a few days , then bottled it . We got about a case and a half each ( you always lose some to what is called “ angel ’ s share ”) to take home .
We named the beer “ Russian Collusion .” Not just as an obvious dig at current events , but also as an homage to what we had just achieved . The three of us colluded to brew the super-beer that was loved by the Empress of Russia and had a hefty hand in boosting the American craft beer scene . Best of all we had fun doing it , and it was amazing stuff . Huzzah !
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