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Imperial Stout: The Dark Side of Beer

Name Note’s:

First off an Imperial Stout and a Russian Imperial Stout are the same beer. Secondly it is sometimes called a Russian Imperial Stout because the Empress of All Russia Catherin II 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. That’s something you should put on the label. Who cares that some colonists in Sierra Leone drink it, too? Sierra Leone Imperial Stout just doesn’t sound as fancy.

How it’s Made:

When looking at how to make an Imperial Stout I stumbled across a video vlog created by a brewer from Expert Village. In his 25 video series he talks about everything you could want to know about making a Russian Imperial Stout. They really are a great set of videos that take about an hour to watch all of them but if I was going to make my own beer at home I would be happy to watch them again. Now, personally I really like the coffee notes that are present in most imperial stouts so when I stumbled across a coffee imperial stout recipe from the December 2002 issue of “Brew Your Own” magazine I was thrilled. Here is the recipe that I would really like to make if ever given the chance to homebrew or maybe in Extending the Seasons.

Coffee Imperial Stout

5 gal/19L, all-grain; OG: 1.067; FG: 1.016; IBU: 70; SRM: 35


  • 8.0 lbs. (3.9 kg) 2-row pale malt
  • 2.25 lbs. (1 kg) crystal (60–80° L)
  • 1.5 lbs. (0.7 kg) wheat malt
  • 1.25 lbs. (0.6 kg) chocolate malt
  • 0.5 lb. (0.2 kg) roasted barley
  • 0.5 lb. (0.2 kg) black patent malt
  • 18.75 AAU Northern Brewer hops (bittering) (2.5 oz./71 g of 7.5% alpha acids)
  • 1.5 oz. (42 g) finishing hops (Northern Brewer or Cascade)
  • 15 oz. (445 mL) of espresso
  • Ale yeast (your choice)

Step by Step:

Mash in all grains at 149° F (65° C). Hold until converted, about 1 hour. Mash off at 170º F (77° C) and begin lautering. Sparge to achieve eight gallons (30 L) of wort. Bring to a boil and add 2.5 oz. (71 g) boiling hops. Total boil is 70 minutes. After the boil, turn off the heat and add 1.5 oz. (43 g) finish hops for five minutes. Cool to 70º F (21° C) and ferment with ale yeast.

Original gravity goal is 17.5° Plato (1.069 SG). Terminal gravity will be pretty high, approximately 1.016. Add espresso at end of primary fermentation, bottle and enjoy!


Stout first appeared on the British brewing scene towards the end of the Eighteenth Century. It was created by brewers in order that they could charge more for a beer that was already in production. Stout was nothing more than the strongest porter produced by a brewer. If you like, it was “premium porter.” The term “stout” had been used in England to designate a strong beer for a hundred years or more before the Eighteenth Century. William Ellis, in “The London and Country Brewer,” famous for publishing the first porter recipe, also mentions a “Stout Beer” in 1742.

But two things happened in the eighteenth century; the “invention” of porter, and the Industrial Revolution. “These events resulted in a rapid increase in size of the London Porter breweries. They went from being small operations run by one man with a few employees, to major companies run by skilled managers and staff. By the end of the century, some were turning out up to 200,000 barrels of beer annually.”[1] To do this they had to be efficient and quite highly mechanized and several London brewers had installed steam engines in the 1780s and 1790s. They had learned quite a bit about brewing in the process of this growth. Use of the thermometer in brewing had become fairly widespread, but for a long time they lacked a method for determining the strength of their beer. This changed in 1784 when John Richardson published a book on the use of the hydrometer in brewing.

The introduction of this simple instrument was a major advance in brewing technology. Brewers now knew just what the strength of their beers were, so they knew which was their “best” porter, and which was the second-rate, or common porter. Armed with this new knowledge, some searched around for a new way to describe the stronger beer, and called it things like “stout porter,” “brown stout,” “brown stout porter” and even “Imperial Brown Stout.” Not too soon after came single, double and triple stout. Secondly, up to that time “porter brewers had relied solely on brown malt, which was cheaper than pale malt. With the hydrometer, they found out that brown malt gave a lower yield of fermentables than pale malt, and that it was actually more expensive in terms of cost per yield of extract.”1 It was actually a double whammy, for malt was sold on a volume basis, and the weight of a quarter of brown malt was only around two-thirds that of a quarter of pale malt. The obvious remedy to this problem was to use pale malt as the source of extract, and to rely on other malts to produce the popular porter flavor. At the time, however, there were fewer other types of malt available. So many brewers still stuck to only brown malt, while others used a proportion of pale with brown, or a mix of pale, brown and amber.

A partial solution to this difficulty came in 1817 when “Daniel Wheeler patented a roasting process to produce black malt, still sometimes known as patent malt today. Adding a small proportion of this to a pale malt mash would give the color and something of the flavor of brown malt porters.”[2] However, this did not mean the disappearance of brown malt, as most brewers continued to use at least a proportion of this in their stouts and porter right up to the end of the Nineteenth Century. In that sense, many types of stout were still really the brewer’s strongest porter, rather than a truly separate style. Indeed, the key to stout developing as a style on its own was the elimination of brown malt in the stout grist in favor of a black malt and pale malt combination. “The black and pale only approach represented a significant taste difference in the product. That was because the use of brown malt gave a relatively high proportion of unfermentables, resulting in a lower attenuation by the yeast and a higher finishing gravity than in a normal wort made from only pale malt.”2 This meant that porters and stouts had a full, sweetish flavor as compared to ales of a similar original gravity. In contrast, the black and pale combination would create a wort capable of higher attenuation, resulting in a beer with a drier flavor. In other words, it would be what we would call a dry stout today.

One of the earliest users of the black and pale combination for stout was, not surprisingly Guinness.  Only a couple of years after Wheeler’s invention, a malt roasting house had been set up in Dublin, literally outside the walls of Guinness’ brewery. Apparently, the first brew of Guinness’ Extra Stout Porter was made in 1821. Ironically, the Irish brewers had almost been run out of business by the English porter brewers in the Eighteenth Century, but by the 1840’s Guinness was exporting significant amounts of stout and porter into England. It is not clear when they first began to use black and pale malt only in their stout. However, G. Amsinck, writing in 1868, records just such a brew as “Dublin Stout,” in his “A Series of Fifty Brewings.” Amsinck states that it was brewed in his brewery, for his instruction, by John Guinness Jr., so the recipe appears to be authentic. Guinness later began to use roasted barley instead. I do not know exactly when this occurred, but one writer, in 1889, states that “cheap black malts are frequently made from roasting barley and other cereals, but these cheap substitutes are nearly always disappointing and not unfrequently lead to disaster.” This tends to suggest that the use of roasted barley was probably not widespread among mainstream brewers at that time.

That’s the story for the first hundred years or so of stout’s history. Later, of course, it diverged into a whole range of styles, including Irish dry stouts, sweet stouts, oatmeal stouts and others.

Flavor Profile:

This Flavor Profile is taken from the Beer Judge Certification Programs website. These are the guidelines for what Russian Imperial Stout should look and taste like. This site also has the classifications of what other types of stouts should look and taste like as well.

Aroma: Rich and complex, with variable amounts of roasted grains, maltiness, fruity esters, hops, and alcohol. The roasted malt character can take on coffee, dark chocolate or slightly burnt tones and can be light to moderately strong. The malt aroma can be subtle to rich and  barleywine-like, depending on the gravity and grain bill. May optionally show a slight specialty malt character (e.g., caramel), but this should only add complexity and not dominate. Fruity esters may be low to moderately strong, and may take on a complex, dark fruit (e.g., plums, prunes, raisins) character. Hop aroma can be very low to quite aggressive, and may contain any hop variety. An alcohol character may be present, but shouldn’t be sharp, hot or solvent. Aged versions may have a slight vinous or port-like quality, but shouldn’t be sour. No diacetyl. The balance can vary with any of the aroma elements taking center stage. Not all possible aromas described need be present; many interpretations are possible. Aging affects the intensity, balance and smoothness of aromatics.

Appearance: Color may range from very dark reddish-brown to jet black. Opaque: deep tan to dark brown head. Generally has a well-formed head, although head retention may be low to moderate. High alcohol and viscosity may be visible in “legs” when beer is swirled in a glass.

Flavor: Rich, deep, complex and frequently quite intense, with variable amounts of roasted malt/grains, maltiness, fruity esters, hop bitterness and flavor, and alcohol. Medium to aggressively high bitterness. Medium-low to high hop flavor (any variety). Moderate to aggressively high roasted malt/grain flavors can suggest bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate, cocoa, and/or strong coffee. A slightly burnt grain, burnt currant or tarry character may be evident. Fruity esters may be low to intense, and can take on a dark fruit character (raisins, plums, or prunes). Malt backbone can be balanced and supportive to rich and barleywine-like, and may optionally show some supporting caramel, bready or toasty flavors. Alcohol strength should be evident, but not hot, sharp, or solvent. No diacetyl. The palate and finish can vary from relatively dry to moderately sweet, usually with some lingering roastiness, hop bitterness and warming character. The balance and intensity of flavors can be affected by aging, with some flavors becoming more subdued over time and some aged, vinous or port-like qualities developing.

Mouth feel: Full to very full-bodied and chewy, with a velvety, luscious texture although the body may decline with long conditioning. Gentle smooth warmth from alcohol should be present and noticeable. Carbonation may be low to moderate, depending on age and conditioning.


Works Cited

“2008 BJCP Style Guidelines.” BJCP 2008 Style Guidelines. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://www.bjcp.org/2008styles/style13.php&gt;.

“All About Beer Magazine.” » Imperial Russian Stout. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://allaboutbeer.com/learn-beer/history/2002/03/imperial-russian-stout/?singlePage&gt;.

“Brew Your Own: The How-To Homebrew Beer Magazine – Recipes – Barleywine and Imperial Stout – Coffee Imperial Stout.” Brew Your Own: The How-To Homebrew Beer Magazine. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://byo.com/stories/recipeindex/article/recipes/91-barleywine-and-imperial-stout/2313-coffee-imperial-stout&gt;.

“How to Brew Beer: Russian Imperial Stout : Equipment for Russian Stout Beer.” YouTube. YouTube, 10 Mar. 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuoRZmGQELw&gt;.

“Russian Imperial Stout: A Short History.” Pintwell. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://pintwell.com/pintblog/2011/mar/22/russian-imperial-stout-history/&gt;.

[1] Russian Imperial Stout: A Short History

[2] All About Beer Magazine


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