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Beer Reviews

Imperial Russian Stout

Stone Brewing Co.
Escondido, CA

Style: Imperial Stout
ABV: 10.8%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (World class.)

Let’s talk lists …

Everyone loves a good list, including us here at (see our annual Midwestern Power Rankings for a prime example). While lists are often just fodder to create debate rather than well-researched, official rankings, it’s always fun to scan the latest “Top 10/25/50/100” rankings. Best TV show of all time? I say it’s The Simpsons, but few lists agree with that assessment. Sexiest men alive? Brad Pitt at the top, Eddie Glick at the bottom, fill in the blanks in between. Hell, the American Film Institute has made a living out of naming the Top 100 movies/actors/actresses of all time, going so far as to come out with a Top 100 in every genre, including some genres that they seem to have invented solely for the purpose of creating a list.

While I can think of a million of “Top Whatever” lists that I’d like to either formulate or debate, I’d better keep it to beer or else feel the wrath of Webmaster Glick. Craft beer enthusiasts love the various lists of “America’s Top 50 Craft Beers,” “The Best Beers of the World,” “West Virginia’s Top Breweries, from 1 to uh … well, 1,” etc. On these lists of America’s best beer, craft or otherwise, often is found suburban San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. Imperial Russian Stout. This isn’t surprising given the fact that Stone is often ranked at or near the top of American breweries, and the imperial stout, much like the imperial IPA, are often heavily represented in the “Best of” lists. Stone’s Arrogant Bastard, Double Bastard, and Ruination IPA, all ballsy, complex brews, typically join Imperial Russian Stout in these lists.

Since I’ve already touched on Ruination IPA and the Bastards, it seems appropriate that I should share my two cents about the final in the Stone quad-slam. I have NO argument with the inclusion of any of these brews in the Top 25, but I will voice my displeasure on the overemphasis of these powerful styles at the top of most rankings. This may sound surprising coming from a hophead extraordinaire whose favorite styles are imperial IPAs and imperial stouts, but I think the overwhelming presence of hops, thick malt, or alcohol don’t necessarily make a beer better than a more balanced and/or less powerful style. There are plenty of other styles that deserve just as much recognition (dunkelweizens and Belgians come to mind) despite perhaps not being as powerful or complex. Honestly, with as overpowering as these styles are in the hops or malt department, some of the better versions can run together a bit. In imperial stouts this is especially true, as the notes of smoky, roasted, sugary malt tend to numb the tongue, stunning the taste buds and making one top-tier version taste just like another, despite the fact there are a number of subtle differences.

As for Imperial Russian Stout, is it worthy of a top rating? No doubt. It’s a phenomenally tasty and complex beer that is as good as anything I’ve ever had. Is it the best imperial stout I’ve ever had? I don’t know … it’s possible, but that’s a judgement that’s too tough to make. Let’s just sit back and enjoy.

Imperial Russian Stout pours a thick, dark brown that is inpenetrable to light, typical of a stout, with a good amount of unfiltered sedimentation present. A thick tan head of about an inch is present on the pour, slowly dissipating into a wonderful creamy lace with massive amounts sticky side clinging. It looks beautiful in my snifter, but it’s not the first imperial stout to look this decadent in a glass.

Aromas are wonderful and, thankfully, not overpowering. Initial smoky, roasted malt notes tinge the nostrils, quickly followed by a pleasant sugary sweetness in the form of toffee, molasses, and dark brown sugar. A nice, moderate earthiness comes through in the aroma as well, which I feel helps temper the roasted and sugary notes, which can often take over a style as complex as this. So far, this is easily up to par.

The flavor seals the deal. Like the aroma, it has all the intricate details you’d expect from an imperial stout, all of them excel, yet none of them overwhelm, making it complex but balanced. As you’d expect, malt dominates in the form of roasted barley and smoked peat, giving it that warming, smoky undertone that makes imperial stouts so tasty in the colder months. The sugary side comes through next, with a major punch of molasses, as well as toffee and caramel. Dark fruity notes are present in the very back end, with hints of fig, plum, and raisin. Perhaps what makes Stone’s version better than many of the other wonderful imperial stouts out there is the distinct presence of hops. It’s not a huge hop addition, nor should it be. But it’s there in the background, and provides Imperial Russian Stout with a slight bitter zing and a floral presence that lightens an otherwise dark beast. To top it off, despite being a nearly 11 percent ABV monster, I sensed no hint of alcohol anywhere during the session. It’s thick, dark, and syrupy, yet has an underlying effervescence that makes for the perfect finish of a phenomenally tasty, complex brew. Full bodied but smooth on the palate, Imperial Russian Stout goes down smooth, and a bomber of this will surely make for an enjoyable evening for any Dork.

There’s no doubt in my mind … all the hype surrounding Stone’s take on the imperial stout is well deserved, and this has to be in at least the top 25 of craft beers out there. Incredibly smooth, complex, and flavorful, it has everything you’d expect from an imperial stout and more. I just wish it wasn’t a limited spring release, as the wonderful taste and reasonable price tag (I paid about six bucks for my bomber) make it a brew that I’d love to have at my disposal year-round. If you haven’t experienced it yet, be sure to find it before it disappears. It’s another example of why lists can in fact be dead-on, as Stone has hit the jackpot once again.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on April 28, 2009.
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