Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout

North Coast Brewing Co.
Fort Bragg, CA

Style: Imperial Stout
ABV: 9.0%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)

Every now and then Nigel goes on a “style kick,” where certain beer styles that I don’t typically drink seem to really hit the spot for a short time. In the summer months it may be wheat beers or pilsners. In the spring and fall it may be the dark, roasted, sweet malt of a maibock or dopplebock. Right now, for whatever reason, it’s Russian imperial stouts. Perhaps spurred on by the onset of chilly late fall temperatures, Nigel has been craving Russian imperials for a good week now. Having the self control of a heroin addict, Nigel gave into his craving and picked up another four-pack of RIS, which I will now review for you.

I’ve long considered the Russian imperial stout to be one of the elite beer styles, along with imperial IPAs and barley wines. Many beer connoisseurs consider it to be the ultimate beer style, far and away above anything else. However, given their overall complexity and the cost and time it takes to make them, they’re far from common. The few craft brewers that do make Russian imperials tend to make them in very small, limited release batches. The best example would be Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Imperial Stout, a 13 percent ABV monster that is released on one day only in the spring, a day that groupies have dubbed “Dark Lord Day.” Considered by many to be perhaps the best beer this country has to offer (Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout and others may have something to say about that), it’s the perfect example of how fine craft brewers tend to produce and market the style: make ‘em good, make ‘em small, and make the release a reason to celebrate.

So, not only are Russian imperials often hard to locate, they also tend to be quite pricey. A bomber of a craft Russian imperial can easily run from $5-$10, and four-packs typically get $8-$15. Even Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy, which is produced by a corporate giant, fetches $9-$10 for a four pack. Needless to say, Nigel’s latest kick will likely be short-lived, as his pocketbook may begin to suffer otherwise.

On a recent beer run during my craving, Nigel stumbled across North Coast Brewing Co.’s Old Rasputin, a year-round Russian imperial that was reasonably priced at $7 for a four-pack. Not only that, the shelf tag said it had received a 91 out of 100 style score on, which meant it had the potential to be quite good. Jackpot, though it did leave Nigel with another California beer to review. With a recent review for Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Ale in the bag and another review coming up for Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale, apparently yours truly thinks California is the new Midwest. Oh well, good beer is good beer, regardless of where it’s made.

A brief history lesson, because Nigel is a historian and likes to share the little bit of knowledge he has whenever he can. First off, Russian imperial stouts are not actually Russian, they’re British. Like the IPA, it’s another ingenious British creation that was developed to travel well. In the 19th century, the Brits tried to impress the Czar and his cronies with the only good thing to come out of Britain at the time, which was beer. In order to survive the long, frigid journey across the Baltic Sea, the Brits loaded a regular stout with hops and alcohol. This made for a sort of “super stout” that was both incredibly tasty and powerful, and thus quite warming during the frigid Russian winter. I’m not sure if this actually impressed the Russians, as it wasn’t distilled from potatoes and we all know how much they love their vodka there. (Do they even drink beer in Russia?)

As for Rasputin, for whom North Coast named this beer, let’s just say he was sort of a Russian combination of Cris Angel, John Edwards, and Jerry Falwell. (Oh, the horror!) A Siberian mystic who came to Moscow in 1911 and fell into favor with Czar Nicholas II’s wife Alexandra, Rasputin was supposedly the only one who could cure the royal couple’s son Alexis of his hemophilia. Rasputin soon came to have enormous influence over the czarist court, despite his penchant to drink, womanize, and not bathe. In 1916, Russian aristocrats kidnapped Rasputin and tried to kill him … and tried again … and tried again … and tried again. Rasputin’s legacy remains as “the man that wouldn’t die.” After being tied up, poisoned, bludgeoned, and shot numerous times, he managed to escape and attack one of his captors. Quickly apprehended and tied up again, then bludgeoned and shot numerous times again and thrown into the river, Rasputin’s body was discovered … with his lungs full of water and his hands unbound, meaning he had again survived, only to finally succumb to drowning. The dude was a total whack-job, but also a total pimp.

As for the brew bearing his name, it’s an appropriately good Russian imperial, though it does fall a bit short when compared to the other examples of the style that have blown me away. For a brew that bears the name of a psychotic Siberian mystic, it’s pretty by-the-books tame, though still tasty.

Old Rasputin pours a bit foamier than a typical Russian imperial stout, with a decent, half-inch or so brownish, fizzy head that slowly dissipates. Heavier laced than typical for the style, tan bubbles dance at the top and side of the glass throughout the drink. The aroma is quite pleasant, but somewhat tempered when compared to other Russian imperials. Aromas of dark roasted malt—mostly chocolate and molasses—dominate, as does a too-strong waft of alcohol.

The taste reflects this brew: it’s very good, but not great. A dark roasted mix of chocolate, molasses, toffee, and coffee, along with a tinge of fruitiness. There is the slightest hoppy zip, though not up to the standards that usually marks the style. Many Russian imperials have an alcoholic zip to them given the high ABV, but Old Rasputin’s is a bit too much; it’s tolerable, but doesn’t need to be so strong. Better Russian imperials will mask this. Old Rasputin is thick and dark as it should be, but not quite as syrupy as you may expect. Full bodied, it goes down relatively smooth with a medium aftertaste.

Judging this as a beer, not paying attention to style, it’s close to a four mug rating. It’s definitely good, and if you like the style, it’s a nice option given the reasonable price and wide availability. However, when compared to other members of its genre, it’s totally average. Perhaps they should have picked a more boring Russian historical figure to name it after, like Boris Yeltsin.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on November 18, 2007.
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