Style Guide: Imperial Stout

Diary of a Beer Girl’s Isla Mercer teaches us all about her favourite style of beer. Bow down to the almighty Imperial Stout.

I always find “what’s your favourite beer?” so difficult to answer. It depends on time of the day, weather, my mood, and everything else inbetween. However, when someone asks what my favourite style is, that’s easy: Imperial stout. That doesn’t mean they’re always the beers I go for, it probably wouldn’t be my tipple of choice at 3pm on a sunny summer’s day in a beer garden, but I think when done well, no other drink can come close. The flavour profile is so much more complex and indulgent than any other beer (or wine) style and, because you generally have around 330ml, the flavours develop over time as you drink it. You can compare the flavour profile of your first, middle and last sips to see the difference, which you don’t get the privilege of with a spirit. As well as a deeply interesting flavour profile, the origin of the imperial stout is pretty interesting too.

It was first brewed in eighteenth-century London by Thrale’s Brewery especially for Russia’s Catherine the Great and her noblemen which is the reason the style is often referred to as ‘Russian Imperial Stout’. Catherine was quite a character and probably Russia’s most famous empress. There are lots of stories about her and it sounds like she was definitely partial to a bit of opulence so I can see why she loved this type of beer so much. Imperial stouts typically have the characteristics of a normal stout, roasted coffee and chocolate aromas and flavours, but elevated to the next level. This style of beer is usually between about 8-12% and unlike the current trend of hop focused beers, the malt bill is the star of the show. A combination of light and darker malts are often used to give an elaborate flavour profile. Sweet raisin and dates are balanced by roast malt flavours combined with warming alcohol and a viscous mouthful. It really does make you feel like an empress when you have it!

Click here to try some Imperial Stouts😍

Saying that, Mills and Hills, a collaboration beer between Fyne Ales from the West Coast of Scotland and Brouwerij de Molen from the Netherlands, is an example of an imperial stout that still has definite hoppy undertones. You get a swift punch in the face from dark, sweet fruits like raisins, dates and plums, settling out into cocoa and slight espresso but then lifted back up at the end by some lighter hops so you’re ready to carry on the fight. Sorachi Ace is one of the hops involved which is a very distinctive hop and usually produces a very light, citrusy flavour; I often get coconut from it as well. Although I couldn’t detect Sorachi Ace specifically in Mills and Hills, you can see how it would contribute to the lighter lift at the end that isn’t present in most imperial stouts.

A more typical example of the style is Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout, which was my answer for the “what’s your favourite beer?” question for most of my early twenties. Rich, dark fruits, coffee and chocolate all combine together in this 10% ABV beauty. It’s a very good starting point if you’ve never tried an imperial stout before as it ticks all the boxes of this style. Some other very good examples of indulgent imperials are the Russian Imperial Stout by Poppels Bryggeri in Sweden, Stone Brewing’s Imperial Russian Stout and Bass Drop by Wales’ Tiny Rebel.

Imperial stouts are far removed from your typical session ales and so I’d recommend having them on special occasions.

Flavour wise, they have similarities to port; both are sweet, viscous and rich, but I find imperials are superior in the complexities of different flavours and the depth. Like ports, they go very well with rich desserts and cheese, so the perfect time for one is at the end of a meal in replacement of a port or dessert wine. If you’re not a huge whisky fan, and have more of a sweet tooth, they would make a good whisky replacement due to their high ABV and extravagant manner. While light, hoppy beers really need to be drunk as freshly as possible, imperial stouts lend themselves quite well to ageing, with different flavour profiles developing over time. When it comes to serving, please, please don’t store this kind of beer in the fridge! Colder temperatures numb tastebuds and while some beers can carry off that cold, refreshing taste, it really doesn’t suit an imperial. Five minutes in the fridge to chill it down slightly is all it takes, although I normally just have them at room temperature. Also, this beer definitely deserves a glass to let the aromas free, so find your biggest wine glass if you don’t have a snifter or chalice and get supping!

Originally published in Issue 4 of Flavourly magazine. Words by Isla Mercer.

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