Imperial stouts have a long, storied history. It is known for being a strong, hearty option with a tantalizingly mysterious name, leaving many to wonder what’s so “imperial” about the drink.
As with most beers, there are dozens of different styles of the imperial stout. Beer brewing is such a big market that it’s no surprise you’ll find a million variations of the same drink, from simple to complex.
It’s essential to understand the long history of imperial stouts to better understand what they are, why people like them, and what you should know when going to order one.
Without further ado, here is the history behind the imperial stout.
The Imperial Stout’s Origin Story
In general, the term “imperial” simply refers to a beer that is big, both in flavor and alcohol content. Imperial stouts have a reputation for being strong and intense, with an extra dose of grains and hops to produce a higher ABV. But there’s more to this term than just someone going wild with a dictionary. There is a historical reason for the name.
The imperial stout was originally created by brewers in London, England, as an extra stout porter. They exported it to Russia starting in the late 18th century to quench the Russians’ taste for the strong stuff. The beer featured a stronger hop bitterness than a standard stout beer, often with notes of chocolate, slight fruitiness, and a bittersweet finish.
The members of the Russian imperial court of Empress Catherine the Great (as beloved as she was bizarre) fell in love with the dark beer and continued to buy it. The drink became associated with Imperial Russia for generations to come as something brewed specifically for the Emperors and Empresses of Mother Russia. That’s why, to this day, it’s still sometimes called a Russian imperial stout (RIS).
One of the largest original breweries making this beer, Barclay, Perkins & Co., formed in 1781 and continued making imperial stouts for Russia for nearly 150 years straight. One recipe from 1856 shows it had an original gravity of 1,107 (which would equal about 10% ABV in today's terminology) and was known for being bitter, hoppy, and strong. This type of beer has a high alcohol content of at least nine percent ABV and is one of the darkest beers available.
As time, wars, and revolutions went on, the trade of imperial stouts between Europe and Russia became strained. Over time, several countries have recreated the imperial stout, such as the Danish Wiibroe Brewery and Canada’s Fritz Sick and Molson. This incredibly strong beer also became popular in the US, where the first brewery to brew their own imperial stout was Yakima Brewing.
The Imperial Stout Today
Today, imperial stouts are more popular than ever. Most modern imperial stouts have a deep black color, notable bitterness, residual sugar, and chocolatey, coffee-like flavor. The hop character will likely be balanced and smooth. You also may find dark fruit flavors, a roasted malt character, and hints of spices like anise and cinnamon.
Imperial stouts are known for being the perfect beer to enjoy on a cold winter's night in front of a warm fire, and they pair amazingly with cheese and dessert.
Modern Imperials and How They’re Made
Any visit to the beer section of the grocery store will find dozens of imperial variations, styles, and genres to purchase—this generally just refers to a version of a beer style that’s stronger than the original.
Brewers craft stronger versions of beer by adding more grains and hops. Grains add fermentable sugars to the yeast, which consumes the sugar and create alcohol (which is pretty important to beer). You might find barley, rye, and even oats in an imperial stout.
Hops, on the other hand, balance out the sweetness of the beer. If a brewer puts in more sugar, then balances it out with more hops, the beer will have a larger ABV as a result.
Because of this brewing process, imperial stouts of today can reach double-digit ABVs, which is pretty great. They are best served between the temperatures of 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Imperial vs. Regular Stout
What differentiates an imperial stout from your regular, everyday stout is the alcohol percentage. Imperial stout typically has over 9% ABV, while regular stout has about 7% ABV on average.
Taste-wise, imperial stouts have a flavor profile similar to dry stouts and have a stronger alcoholic potency while being much less sweet than other stouts. Stouts like this are made to be very long-lasting (thanks to that export heritage), and as a result, have a higher alcohol percentage to boost shelf-life.
The Best Imperial Stouts
Imperial stouts are a delicious variety of beer that is produced all over the world. Here are some of the most popular imperial stouts sold today.
Brux Royale Belgian Chocolate Stout
The Brux Royale Belgian Chocolate Stout is a product of the Ross Brewing Company out of Port Monmouth, New Jersey. This beer is sold in 500-milliliter bottles with roughly 11.7% ABV per bottle.
This rich blend has prominent aromas of roasted malts and dark chocolate up front, making this stout unlike any other available to drinkers. Brux Royale includes chunks of Belgian chocolate, molasses, vanilla beans, milk sugar, ale yeast, chocolate malt, and much more.
Kentucky Bourbon Stout
This Kentucky Bourbon Stout (KBS) comes from the Founders Brewing Company out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. An annual release, this beer comes in thick 12-ounce bottles with 12.2% ABV per bottle.
KBS is a big imperial stout brewed with lots of coffee and chocolate. They age the brew in Bourbon barrels for a final product that’s incredibly silly, full-bodied, and has strong notes of vanilla, cocoa, roast coffee, and charred oak.
Marshal Zhukov's Penultimate Push
Aptly named based on the style's Russian heritage, Marshal Zhukov’s Penultimate Push is dedicated to Georgy Zhukov, one of the most famous generals in the USSR (and world, for that matter).
Specifically, this beer is dedicated to Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front of the Red Army as they pushed through German East Prussia during World War II, which was critical for the push to Berlin, which won the war not long after.
Marshal Zhukov is a product of Cigar City Brewing of Tampa, Florida. It was made using freshly roasted coffee beans, vanilla, and cacao nibs.
Dark Lord Imperial Stout
This mysterious, borderline demonic, Russian-style imperial stout brandishes an intriguing name: Dark Lord. The most unique aspect of this beer is that it is only available one day a year in April at the brewery, which is apparently Dark Lord Day.
The 3 Floyds Brewing Company brews this beer out of Indiana with coffee, Mexican vanilla, and Indian sugar.
A bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout from The Bruery, their Black Tuesday is an elegantly simple but undeniably tasty beer that proves to be a fan favorite in the genre.
This imperial stout was aged in bourbon barrels for over a year, then combined with flavors of crème brûlée, poached fig, hints of malted milk balls, and Australian licorice.
Yeti Imperial Stout
A product of the Great Divide Brewing Company, the Yeti Imperial Stout is a solid choice in the market of imperial stouts for boasting a big, roasty malt flavor that gives way to rich caramel and toffee notes.
When compared to normal stouts, imperials corner the market by providing a darker, stronger beer that is delicious at medium to low temperatures.
Imperial stouts came about through grand interactions of trade, war, commerce, and imperial intrigue. If it weren’t for the fickle tastes of the Russian imperial court, this kind of beer might not have developed as it did. Wouldn’t that be a shame?
If this history lesson has you curious about imperial stouts, then maybe it’s time to try one for yourself! Check out the selection of stouts at TapRm to find all the beer you could ever dream of. After a few minutes on TapRm, you’ll start to feel like a Russian royal yourself!