NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Russian Imperial Stout has been renamed as Style 20C Imperial Stout in Category 20 American Porter and Stout.
These beers all evolved from their English namesakes to be wholly transformed by American craft brewers. Generally, these styles are bigger, stronger, more roast-forward, and hoppier than their European cousins. These styles are grouped together due to a similar shared history and flavor profile.
Russian Imperial Stout is a very strong version of a stout. It was originally brewed by British brewers to withstand the long journey to Russia and the Baltic area.
When Peter the Great opened Russia to the rest of the world in the early part of the 18th century, the dark ales called Porter were extremely popular. Peter the Great visited England in 1698 and fell in love with the Porters brewed there. He liked them so much that he requested some be sent to the royal court in Russia.
You can probably guess what happened on the first attempt. Somewhere along the thousand-mile trip, the beer went bad. The English were thoroughly embarrassed. So, the Barclay brewery in London increased the alcohol content and hops.
The resulting beer was opaque black with lots of warming alcohol and plenty of complexity after aging on the trip. The beer became a sensation all across Russia. Catherine the Great (1729-1796) liked the beer so much that she ordered huge volumes of the beer from a couple of different British breweries for her own consumption and that of her court.
Russian Imperial Stouts went the way of most dark ales when lagers arrived. The style was revived by Samuel Smith brewery in the early 1980s and has since been embraced by the craft beer movement in America. Russian Imperial Stouts are favorites of homebrewers who enjoy the bolder and stronger beers.
An RIS will have dark fruit flavors mixed with roasty, burnt, or almost tar-like nuances. Some comparei it to a black barleywine. Several variations of this beer exist, with English and American interpretations. The American versions have more bitterness, roasted character, and finishing hops, while the English varieties reflect a more complex specialty malt character and a more forward ester profile. The wide range of allowable characteristics allow for a lot of creativity from the brewer.
This beer is an intensely-flavored, big, dark ale with a wide range of flavor balances and regional interpretations. Look for roasty-burnt malt with deep dark or dried fruit flavors, and a warming, bittersweet finish.
Brewing Tips for a Russian Imperial Stout:
Despite the intense flavors, the components need to meld together to create a complex, harmonious beer. It is more complex, and has a broader range of possible flavors than lower-gravity stouts. An RIS is as big and bold as a stout gets. The style really has no upper limit on alcohol or hops, but the alcohol should not be harsh or "hot".
There are two key points to remember when brewing a RIS. Since these beers are high in alcohol, you must ensure that they attenuate enough to ensure they are not too sweet for the style. Although some versions are considered desert beers, making the beer too sweet and cloying is not appropriate.
Another factor to keep in mind it that you must control the fermentation to ensure the beer doesn't end up with harsh alcohols reminiscent of solvent. Go for the low end of your yeast's published temperature range. This will ensure the beer has the best chance of eliminating those unwanted fermentation related
This beer also benefits from long aging which will mellow and integrate the flavors and add to it's complexity. Something I'm thinking about doing (because I made an RIS with 11.5% ABV and want to age it a very long time) is to add Potassium Metabisulfite (campden tablets) to the beer when FG is reached. Then wait a couple of weeks for the sulfur to dissipate before kegging or botling. The antioxidants in the metabisulfite will allow the beer to remain shelf stable for much longer (that's the hope anyway).
Information for this article was adapted from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, and Brewing Classic Styles 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, written by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, the article Imperial Dining - Russian Imperial Stout from the website www.alexanderpalace.org.
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