By Gregg Smith
Snow swirled about the isolated command post as the captain of the guard prepared his late night meal. It was another cold night of protecting the empire. Within a few minutes one of his sentries, rounds complete, stepped inside. Pouring two beers, the captain passed one to the foot soldier and raised the glass in a simultaneous salute and toast to the Czar, in thanks for the comforting rations.
In a scene repeated across the great expanse of Russia, grateful soldiers savored the dark, hearty ale. They were fortunate; spared the locally produced beer, their Czar bought them the best of English ales. It wasnÕt that all imported beers were good, but the specially brewed "Imperial Stout" was especially popular among the troops.
Before refrigeration the shipment of beer was a risky business, because transporting more than a few miles invited spoilage. Over time however, brewers discovered they could extend the life of beer by increasing the two parts of its makeup that were natural preservatives - alcohol and hops.
Brewed for the Baltic trade, Imperial Stout was formulated from the existing recipes for porter and stout, augmented with exaggerated alcohol and hops to survive its journey east. Various stories relate how the title Imperial Stout was awarded, one of the earliest reaches back to the days of Peter the Great.
As the first Russian Czar to travel abroad, Peter fell in love with English beers and ordered a number of ales for his royal court. Thus began Russia's official connection to beer, a relationship that was formally linked to stout when a Belgian exporter named A. LeCoq began shipping the higher alcohol version of stout to the Baltic.
Conducting international trade in the mid 1800's, as LeCoq did, was subject to the perils of a volatile political atmosphere. Tensions rose and finally unstable relations between Europe and Russia came to open warfare in the Crimean War. A ghastly conflict, it was fought when military tactics lagged far behind the development of modern weaponry. Disturbed by the frightful bloodshed, a humanitarian gesture by LeCoq drew the attention of Russian nobility.
Over generations a reputation had grown about the healthful and restorative powers of stout. Motivated to ease the troops suffering and help them heal, LeCoq contributed stout to the hospitals of the Crimea. Touched by the BelgianÕs generosity, the Czar bestowed a royal warrant on LeCoq and his well loved stout. Other brewers, seeing LeCoq's success soon began making their own versions based upon the style profile of "Imperial Stout" sold by LeCoq. Before long, a separate style of stout was born.
Following the grain and energy shortages of two world wars, which inhibited production of dark malt, Imperial Stout nearly faded from view. However, over the last several years Imperial Stout reemerged with an increasing number of brewers formulating their interpretations of the style.
Brewers fashion typical batches of Imperial Stout from grain bills of pale and crystal malts, and roasted barley in quantities that reach a starting gravity of 1.074 (18 Plato) and higher. From such additions the final product appears deeply colored in the range of 26 to 40 SRM, and balancing the beer requires bittering from Fuggles and Kent Goldings hops to rates of 80 IBU's and up. Usually fermented out with ale yeast, some east European breweries use lager strains, counting upon the high initial gravity to add the fruity trait associated with proper ales. Unfortunately, mere statistics fail to convey the true nature of Imperial Stout, a personality born from the necessity of making a beer that could travel to Russia.
In boosting the alcohol levels of Imperial Stout, brewers turn to the abundant sugars found in two row malt, resulting in a beer lighter in color than traditional dry stout. Perhaps no other beer looks more inviting in a lightly perspiring glass, cool droplets turning the garnet and ruby hues into a pint of gems.
Uninitiated drinkers have often been fooled into thinking they've stumbled upon a light colored porter, but the aroma cautions against lack of restraint. Rising from deep within its soul, Imperial Stout emits the bouquet of flowery perfume and fruitiness expected from strong beers.
Spreading across the tongue, it coats the entire mouth with decadent opulence. Again it has deceived, for though appearing full and heavy, it has a moderate body that distorts and exaggerates its perception with a soft creamy mouth feel. Unlike its cousin dry stout, Imperial has a more subdued accent on roastiness. Emphasis rests on a complex personality reminiscent of sweetened coffee with low notes of cocoa or chocolate. Some of the more complex versions offer an elusive hint of caramelized plums that alternately emerges and flees, like a frolic through a royal labyrinth.
Hopping rates may be aggressive in American interpretations, but in European Imperial Stouts, brewed for aging, they gracefully fade to the background. In most examples an unobtrusive, sherry-like finish builds, then fades to a light dryness, while in others it closes with a mild spiciness.
Unexpectedly, Imperial stout pairs well with a variety of foods. As with other members of the stout family it complements both the soft, silky flavors of oysters and the sharp brininess of caviar in the prelude to a meal. With entrees it matches easily with hearty dishes and though it cries for pairing with lamb stew, wild goose, venison, and beef bourguignon, it adds a certain dignity to simple bread and cheese platters, or pastrami sandwiches. At dessert, cheesecake presents a straightforward choice, but reach beyond the obvious for cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream, an eclair, fruit tarts, or a freshly filled cannoli. Not reserved solely for special occasions, Imperial Stout could adequately serve as a table beer throughout a long cold winter. In fact, severe weather brings the best out of Imperial Stout,
Huddled in their outpost, the captain of the guard and his sentry set their glasses down next to their rations of hard cheese, black bread and dried meats. Glancing through the window they saw nothing but the perpetual darkness of the Russian winter. Duty in these remote areas was always trying, far from friends and families, they felt isolated and forgotten. Yet one person remembered them, no matter how harsh outside, the Czar had them in his thoughts. They were feasting, or so it seemed in the comforting warmth of their Imperial Stout.
© Gregg Smith