Russian Imperial Stout: A Short History
Thick, black, and big. Yeah, you know what I am talking about: Russian Imperial Stout. This London born ale is known for its high alcohol, high bitterness, use of dark malts, and apparently Catherine the Great of Russia was a fan of this dark style. If you're not familiar with all the things Cathrine the Great's was into--like the fact she died having sex with a horse--you should check out this Wikipedia article for some fun reading while sipping your favorite Imperial Stout. Well maybe, possibly, she did or didn’t die while having sex with a horse, but who can resist such a scandalous rumor? You can just imagine the Russian Court downing these fine imported ales at their crazy orgies. What fun!
The history of the Russian Imperial Stout traces back to a strong porter brewed at Anchor Brewery in Southwark Parish, London. Near the end of the eighteenth century, Henry Thrale developed a strong porter (the term stout not yet in use) that was popular not only in London, but found customers all across the globe. This beer known as Thrale’s Intire (or Entire in modern spelling), was acknowledged in the History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Saviour, Southwark for its worldwide reputation (emphasis mine):
The reputation and enjoyment of Porter is by no means confined to England. As proof of the truth of this assertion, this house exports annually very large quantities; so far extended are its commercial connections that Thrale’s Intire is well known, as a delicious beverage, from the frozen regions of Russia to the burning sands of Bengal and Sumatra. The Empress of All Russia is indeed so partial to Porter that she has ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking and that of her court. It refreshes the brave soldiers who are fighting the battles of their country in Germany and animates with new ardour and activity the colonists of Sierra Leone and Botany Bay It is not only evident from the exportation of other articles but likewise from the quantity of Porter sent abroad that Thrale's Intire extends the reputation of British produce to the most remote quarters of the Globe
And from here we get the first Russian connection. I’ve run into a few notes that say that the Russian Imperial Stout has a high gravity level to survive the brutal cold and long distances that it had to travel to make it to Russia. While there is no doubt that high gravities and high hopping rates allow a beer to travel and age well, I haven’t found anything that can reliably back up that claim that this was the source of the recipe and not simply an advantage of the recipe. It seems more likely that Thrale’s beer was big because that’s what people wanted to drink. And the fact that this beer was shipped to warmer climates also suggests that the recipe wasn’t formulated just to keep it from freezing on its way to Russian. But the important part here, and the part that has become part of legend of this style, is that the Empress of All Russia bought this fine beer for her own court. That’s a big deal and something you want to play up if you’re the brewer. Who cares that some colonist in Sierra Leone drink it, too? The Empress of All Russia! That’s something you should put on the label. Sierra Leone Imperial Stout just doesn't sound as fancy.
Eventually the Anchor Brewery passed from Thrale to Barclay & Perkins who continued to make Thrale's strong porter, and the reciepe continued to evolve and change. In Martin Cornell's book Amber, Gold, and Black The History of Britan's Great Beers there is a record of the 1851 recipe of this Imperial Stout: 63.6% pale malt, 23% brown malt, 10.8% amber malt and 2.6% roasted malt for an OG of 1085 and a hop rate of 9lbs per barrel (a crap load, technically speaking).
Another figure who helped contribute to the history of this beer is a Belgian Albert Le Coq who exported Barclay & Perkin's porter throughout the Baltic. As import tariffs increased at the beginning of the twentieth century Albert Le Coq had a challenging task. The legend goes that Le Coq had donated porter to Russian soldiers fighting in the Crimean War. As an award for his generous gift, the Tzar invited Le Coq to found a brewery in Estonia that would be able to supply Imperial Stout to Russia and avoid the high tariffs. Unfortunately, A. Le Coq picked a bad time to open a brewery: World War I was around the corner and some people got together and decided it was a good time to rid Russia of the Tsar. A beer “brewed for the Tsarist government” didn’t find much success under the Bolsheviks.
Label for Harvey & Sons recreation of the original Russian Imperial Stout
Over time Thrale’s Intire eventually developed into Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout. The name Russian Imperial Stout has quite a ring. Who wouldn’t want to drink the same stuff they sipped at the Hermitage? "The Empress drinks this, dude. Look how badass I am", you say to your friends. I don’t think it’s surprising that as American breweries have adopted this style many of them have kept the term "Russian Imperial Stout" instead of sticking with the simpler "Imperial Stout" appellation. Barclay & Perkins continued to produce their Russian Imperial Stout on a smaller scale. The international market had continue to shrink throughout the twentieth century. In 1955 Barclay & Perkins merged with their close neighbors Courage and Company, and the Russian Imperial Stout continued to be brewed up until 1993. Now this original is gone. But one brewer has gone to great lengths to resurrect this particular ale and continue its rich history. Harvey’s of Sussex has produced an award winning Imperial Russian Stout based off records from A. Le Coq’s brewery and input from people who worked at Barclay & Perkins when the original Russian Imperial Stout was still brewed. Jeff Evans’ blog Inside Beer has a great write up on the formulation of the recipe used at Harvey’s. One day I hope to get my hands on a bottle and drink a piece of this history.
Not enough? Want more Russian Imperial Stout History? Check out this great post from the Zythophile:Imperial Stout - Russian or Irish.
UPDATE: The Courage Russian Imperial Stout is back! Wells and Young has brought back this oustanding beer and with a little bit of work you can hunt it down. And you should.
Want to go big and brew a Russian Imperial Stout at home? Here are the different vitals used to judge the style here in the United States:
Vitals from the Beer Judge Certificate Program.
Original Gravity: 1.075-1.115
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity: 1.018-1.030
Alcohol by Volume 8-12%
Bitterness (IBU) 50-90
Color SRM 30-40
Full details on the BJCP website.
Vitals from the Brewers Association
British-Style Imperial Stout
Dark copper to very dark brown, British-style imperial stouts typically have high alcohol content. The extremely rich malty flavor (often characterized as toffee-like or caramel-like) and aroma are balanced with medium hopping and high fruity-ester characteristics. Bitterness should be moderate and balanced with sweet malt character. The bitterness may be higher in the darker versions. Roasted malt astringency is very low or absent. Bitterness should not overwhelm the overall character. Hop aroma can be subtle to moderately hop-floral, -citrus or -herbal. Diacetyl (butterscotch) levels should be absent.
Original Gravity (ºPlato) 1.080-1.100 (19.5-23 ºPlato)
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato) 1.020-1.030 (4-7.5 ºPlato)
Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 5.5-9.5% (7-12%)
Bitterness (IBU) 45-65
Color SRM (EBC) 20-40+ (40-80+ EBC)
Full details from the Brewers Association website.
A great book on the history of British beers: Martyn Cornell's Amber, Gold & Black The History of Britan's Great Beer
You can find a short history, an interesting chronology, and images at http://www.mpeterson.co.uk/irs.htm
A great article from All About Beer that helped get me started: http://allaboutbeer.com/learn-beer/history/2002/03/imperial-russian-stout/?singlePage
A recipe and more great stuff at The Brewers Association