Other than “free”, there are few better words that precede beer than “Imperial.” The designation isn’t so much an official style guideline as a warning to the consumer. Beers of this ilk usually double-down on sweetness, bitterness and alcohol, meaning the flavor rises in equal parts with the odds of slurring, vertigo and other markers of a well spent evening.
The usage of “imperial” is likely derived from the Russian Imperial Stout. Like the Baltic Porter and India Pale Ale, this style was brewed with a higher concentration of alcohol to keep it fresh for the long road from England to the Russian Imperial Court in the 1700s.
We can’t prove the Romanov’s designed this hat under the influence of imperial stout, but they clearly weren’t sober
Imperial beers tend to be a really mixed bag. The best deliver their potency with ease while lesser examples always seem like they are trying too hard to dial up the volume and create a cacophonous mess. Maybe some analogies are the best way to explain this:
Good Imperial Ale : Bad Imperial Ale :: U2 (circa Joshua Tree) : U2 (after they went batshit in 1993)
Not contemporary enough? How about this:
Good Imperial Ale : Bad Imperial Ale :: Kim Kardashian Sex Tape : Gene Simmons Sex Tape
That might be more an issue of “too hard to watch” versus trying too hard. Maybe this one works better:
Good Imperial Ale: Bad Imperial Ale :: __________________: The Bad Movies in the “Meet The Fockers” Series
Sorry. That last one collapsed under the weight of the Focker’s suckitude. But I think my point is clear.
Raven’s Eye Imperial Stout (9.5% ABV) by Eel River Brewing Company
Of all the imperial stouts I tasted for this article, this was the only one that was certified organic. As you’ll come to read, it also ends up getting the lowest grade of the pack. Conclusion: pesticides are delicious. Why don’t you jot that down in your ethically-sourced fair-trade carbon-neutral hemp feelings journal, hippies.
Just like mom used to make
This stout is a dark, cola brown with a thin, sandy head. The smell is a potent combination of oak, molasses, alcohol and smoke. The best way I can describe it would be that distinct smell you get when you use booze-soaked oak firewood to set a molasses factory on fire.
The smoky sweetness in the first taste echoes the smell, though the flavor is more reminiscent of caramelized onions. It’s really dominant and tangy, almost citrusy. The Raven’s Eye is sadly light in the mouthfeel for a imperial stout, but it’s not gutting the experience. The alcohol is almost undetectable, but at 9.5% ABV it’s clearly not a matter of neglect.
Overall it’s a bit sticky-sweet and lacking in body to pull off an imperial stout with authority, but certainly worth revisiting.
Oak Aged Yeti (9.5% ABV) Great Divide Brewing Company
This imperial stout produces a blanket of dark tan head so thick you could float an infant on it. Don’t ask me how I know that. You just go on babysitting the way you want to and I’ll do the same.
The lacing from the head practically lacquers the inside of the glass, but not so much so that you can’t see just how dark this beer is. It is simply opaque black emptiness, which is coincidentally the name of my favorite Swedish death metal band:
Let’s see those Kidz Bop assholes try to cover these
A distinct woodiness punctuates the smell of this stout, with notable contributions from the alcohol, coffee and roasted malts. The amount of yeti in the aroma is mercifully small. Everything sticks to that fur, if you catch my drift.
The nose is a great introduction to The Yeti’s flavor, bringing its woody and vanilla notes to the forefront. That sweetness is capped pretty quickly by earthy and piney hops that tilt the balance toward the bitter overall.
This beer delivers a very visceral experience. It is very creamy and full-bodied. Its alcohol warmth builds to a crescendo as it radiates through the chest. Unless I’m mistaking this for a coronary event, of course. Even if that is the case, this is not a poor final beer. I’ll be with you in heaven soon, hot-girl-from-high-school-I-should-have-banged-before-that-tragic-badminton-accident
The Czar (11.69% ABV) by Avery Brewing Company
The Czar assembles a stalwart head that piles as high as you pour it. It’s thick enough to seem like an homage to Russian fashion:
Like this, but the actual beer uses marginally less rat hair
The head has the robust webby texture of the foam atop a root beer float. Any beer that stamps the drinker with a 70’s pornstache after the first gulp is cool with me.
It has the soft aromatics of dark chocolate and a touch of vanilla. I don’t smell the alcohol yet, which strangely feels like a deal-breaker. I’ve got a suspicion that my liver just isn’t keeping up with its A.D.D. meds though.
The first taste has a big, roasty bite that is paired with a rich vanilla & toffee sweetness. It is beautifully balanced with a spicy, earthy bitterness in the finish. The mouthfeel is just as complimentary to the experience, bringing a creaminess that is right in the sweet spot for making the designation of “stout” feel appropriate.
To summarize, all the components of this are precisely tuned and well proportioned, with the notable (and welcomed) exception of the alcohol. This humble bottle will happily deliver the 5-finger death punch to your sobriety. Plan on sharing this with a friend or doing a considerable amount of sitting after you’re done pounding it.