Let’s think about the word imperial. What does it conjure up, what does it evoke? The Romans of course, but more recently, a swaggering, cruel, bullying robber baron perhaps, insatiable in his (yes, it’s always a he) hunger for more at the expense of those who have what he wants. So, it’s about more, wanting more. Imperial = more.
Let’s now think of stout and marry it to the word imperial. He (and he’s also always a he) is a jolly large, stout fellow, Falstaff perhaps, a toper, a pot-valiant, but stout was also a description of strength back in the 19th century (hence stout porter, but that’s another story). Now it’s time to put these two words together and we have a magnificent beast of a beer, a leviathan in a glass, the world split asunder then brought back together again beneath the umbrella of malt, hops, yeast and water. It’s also a beer that doesn’t boast, that is humble in its boldness of flavour and character, the imperial bully vanquished and vanished. We also have perhaps one of the most luscious beer styles on the palate.
Its history and place in the world of beer styles will be investigated elsewhere, here I’m imagining imperial stout and lending a hand on how you can bring this friendly monster of a beer into your life. For a start, it is a contemplative beer, a beer that sits in the glass, brooding, a king’s best friend plotting murder and mayhem, or hooded like a character from a legendary story that people tell each other and shiver with fear in a tavern where a log fire throws unsteady shapes on the wall.
Something like Crew Republic’s Roundhouse Kick perhaps, a dark beer, as dark as the formless night when the moon is shy and withered, as bold in its flavour as a hero ready to fight the whole world and also enjoy the experience. This is a beer that commands you find a favourite armchair, alongside a book or a piece of music (a cigar even if you want to travel down that particular path) and study it.
This is a beer for now, for the winter months, when its dark malty malevolence and heady alcoholic strength creates a warming atmosphere in the glass. Here’s De Molen’s Hel & Verdoemenis for instance, roasty, chocolaty, smoky and rich on the palate. Would you drink this in the summer? Of course, you would, but you would get a different and not particularly rewarding experience; sitting in the sun, soaking up the warmth. So it’s a seasonal beer, a beer whose colour reflects the time of year, the greyness and gloom of the winter months when we want food and drink that lifts the soul.
So it’s clear: imperial stouts are strong and heady beers, not to everyone’s taste, a favourite with a minority perhaps, rather than being a crowd-pleaser, and that leads then to the question: why would a brewer make an imperial stout? After all it is profligate in its use of malt, consuming in the time it takes to mature, strong in its impact on the palate.
For some, such as the Brazilian brewer I once asked about his imperial stout, it was about wanting to introduce something new to his country’s beer drinking community. For the venerable English family brewery Harvey’s, whose imperial stout is a Bretted marvel, it was originally a commission from an American importer, which has become a regular part of its portfolio. For others, it’s the chance to play about in the brewery, especially if pale ales and IPAs are the main money in the brewery’s pocket.
Play. It’s not a word or an act you would usually associate with imperial stout, but a sense of play has certainly crept into the way some breweries interpret imperial stout. Think on Emelisse’s Espresso Stout, imperial in the way it looks at the world, but also joined by coffee beans in the brewing process, which give it a luscious, creamy, fruit and robust character. Is this an imperial stout, though? I’ll let you be the judge of that, for after all, to paraphrase an English proverb, all work and no play gives many a brewer a dull day.