Before the recent competitive streak among American brewers, where each now fight to raise alcohol and bitterness levels to unthinkable (and sometimes undrinkable) heights, two beer styles reigned as the original extreme beers. Originally thought to be the biggest beers the craft had to offer, imperial stouts and barley wines signified a time when high gravity beers were the exception. If you walked into a brewpub, opened the menu, and saw that the establishment offered one of these styles, you knew the place was serious about its beer. Now, in an era of extreme everything, big palate bruising beers are widely available.
While American brewers got hooked on the lighter stuff early on, they gradually made their way to harder products, from imperial stouts and barley wines to Belgians and experimental brews. In serving as the "gateway" products, the imperial stout and barley wine styles established themselves early on as the original extreme beers, and helped spawn a whole new era in American craft brewing.
An appreciation of imperial stouts and barley wines signifies many things: a dedication to slowing down your lifestyle and the enjoyment of the fruits of the craft of brewing. For brewers, the styles require an expensive amount of ingredients, careful attention to brewing detail, and the forfeiture of tank space for lengthy periods of time. For the consumer, the styles should be enjoyed over a stretch of time, as these strong beers do not lend themselves to instant gratification. These styles produce occasion beers, as far from session ales as a consumer can get. For all involved parties, imperial stouts and barley wines demand full and undivided attention.
The ORIGINAL IMPERIAL BEER
The creation of the imperial stout style once again finds its origins in the rigors of world geography and the omnipresent problem of providing a fresh product to far-away consumers. In what has almost become beer folklore, the British originally brewed imperial stouts to send to the Czarist courts in Russia. As was the case with the creation of the India pale ale style, British brewers had great trouble providing fresh beer to the stout-loving Russians. By the time their regular stouts arrived after thousands of miles of travel, the beer was often stale and undrinkable. So, to conquer the distance and freshness problem, the British brewers simply upped the ante. By increasing the alcohol and hop content of their original stout recipes, the brewers solved their shipping problem, while giving birth to the new imperial stout style.
In its earliest days, the Courage Brewery provided imperial stout, often called Imperial Russian Stout, to the court of Czarina Catherine the Great. For much of its history, the John Courage Imperial Stout proudly proclaimed on its label that it was brewed for the "Empress of the Russias" for "more than 200 years". Sadly, this historic beer fell victim to the onslaught of corporate mergers, and the newly formed Scottish & Newcastle company discontinued brewing it in 1993. In a spot of good news and hope for stout lovers, however, a new vintage of the brew, meticulously crafted to match the original recipe, was made available on cask at the 2003 Great British Beer Festival.
The imperial stout style is the kingfish of big, bold and dark beers. Imperial stouts are designed to simultaneously scare and intrigue the average drinker. Their forbidding pitch-black color and unusual deep brown head serve as warning signs to the wary: enter at your own peril.
Beyond their characteristic opaque colors, imperial stouts also burst in every other measurable category. Representations of the style have high alcohol contents, ranging from seven to twelve percent by volume. Imperial stouts are deep, rich and malty brews, sometimes with high astringency levels or/and roasted grain elements. Common flavor characteristics include coffee, chocolate, raisins, and espresso.
To balance the ample amounts of rich malt needed to attain such high alcohol levels, brewers typically employ strong bittering hops as a balancing factor. In brewing their signature products, brewers use varying amounts of hops to make their offerings distinctive. Beers of this style range from subtle to powerful hop bitterness and aroma (from 50 to more than 100 international bitterness units, or IBU's).
In America, brewer Bert Grant is widely credited for creating this country's first version of the historic style. His imperial stout, produced by the Yakima Brewing Company, weighs in at a diminutive six percent alcohol, but makes up for it with Grant's uniquely American twist on the imperial style - he significantly increased the presence of hop flavor and bitterness in the brew. This first foray into the imperial stout style set the example for many subsequent American variations on the classic category.
With the craft beer boom, American brewers began to look beyond the traditional staples of pale ales, ambers and dry stouts. In embracing the styles on the fringe of brewing, American brewers found a friend in the imperial stout. In a foretelling of future trends, American brewers souped up the imperial stout style until it no longer bore much resemblance to its older, more staid English sibling. The American take on the imperial stout style gained in alcoholic strength, moving its average from seven to 10 or 11 percent. To balance out this massive addition of malt, American brewers also boosted their hop usage, increasing bitterness levels near or beyond a blistering 100 IBU's.
The BARLEY WINE BREAK THROUGH
British brewers also lay claim to the powerful and thrillingly complex barley wine style. Barley wines, so named because of their super-sized strength, are ales typically ranging from tawny copper to ruddy brown in color. Traditional examples of the style often feature a full body and possess high levels of residual sweetness. The style is characterized by a complex array of alcohol and fruit esters, with a mix of hop aromas. Unlike the more balanced imperial stout style, traditional barley wines often remain delightfully out of balance, with a greater ratio of sweet malt flavors over hop bitterness. Alcohol levels are typically elevated compared to imperial stouts, with a slightly higher IBU count.
Among connoisseurs, there is a quietly brewing debate over those beers that constitute barley wines and those more properly classified as fitting the old ale style. While this may be a debate best left to the dedicated beer geeks, it is important to note some subtle differences between the barley wine and old ale styles. Old ales are similarly robust in color, yet remain slightly less powerful in alcohol levels, bitterness units and mouthfeel compared to barley wines. Old ales are generally easier to drink, less potent than barley wines, and also contain far less bitterness to balance the sweet malt flavors.
Among the first commercially available barley wines was a brew produced by Bass, known as No.1. Early on, it was imprinted with the "barley wine" style. After decades of production, No.1 eventually also fell victim to market forces. But in a tribute to the reverence both brewers and consumers have for these high-powered styles, a side project at Bass resurrected the brand in the 1990s. At Bass' Museum Brewing Company, brewers use England's oldest microbrewery to occasionally craft No.1, and a range of other beers, on a small seven-barrel system.
Happily for beer drinkers, barley wine's fall from popularity was well-timed to correspond to the growth of craft brewing in America. Ten years after saving the Anchor Brewing Company from extinction, craft brewing pioneer Fritz Maytag and his team of brewers set out to brew their own version of the historic barley wine style. In a nod to history, Anchor produced its classic Old Foghorn ale from the first runnings of an all-malt mash. After sending off all of its new barley wine beer, the brewers then created a traditional "small beer" by running warm water over the mash a second time, creating a thinner wort base. The resulting product, which is related to the powerfully malty and hoppy Old Foghorn, is bitter in flavor and aroma and noticeably tamer than the first runnings.
While the Old Foghorn based itself squarely on traditional English barley wine ales, it also added a uniquely American twist of using the citrusy Cascade hop. Anchor ages the beer for six months before releasing it in a series of confoundingly small seven-ounce bottles. The resulting product is mild in alcohol, from eight to ten percent, but possesses characteristic fruity hop bitterness.
Similar to the imperial stout style, later generations of American brewers proceeded to open the beer's hood and make a series of over-powering tune-ups to the traditional style. Sierra Nevada Brewing entered the market in 1985 with its Bigfoot Barley Wine, effectively putting the American stamp of hop bitterness and aroma on the traditional style. From that moment forward, American brewers engaged in an inspired series of competitive increases that continues to push the envelope of the style.
The ULTIMATE SEASONAL BEERS
In an increasingly competitive marketplace of varied, intriguing styles, the imperial stout and barley wine categories remain irreplaceable selections for the season. Among seasonal beers, imperial stouts and barley wines are kings. Not even wheat beers in the summer match the ability of these powerful brews to beat back the rigors of the season.
STONE IMPERIAL STOUT
This beer, from the eclectic and inventive Stone Brewing Company, is actually offered as a summer seasonal, though it is best enjoyed in the more challenging winter months. It pours thick, with a quickly dissipating tan head. This imperial stout is glassy black in color and remains one of the darkest beers I have ever encountered. There is a strong chocolate malt aroma, mixed with figgish sweet fruit and strong alcohol esters. The flavor is toasted wafer and overall is well-balanced between malt, alcohol and hops. The Stone Imperial Stout is a beer that you can enjoy over several hours, with corresponding changes in flavor throughout.
THREE FLOYDS DARK LORD IMPERIAL STOUT
On the other end of the style spectrum is an imperial stout that likes to hang out with the troublemakers. Immediately following the release of the Dark Lord Imperial Stout from the Three Floyds Brewing Company, word started to spread about this beer. Samplers claimed it to be the thickest beer they had ever come across, while others proclaimed it the best, maltiest imperial stout on the market. In a visit to the brewing company at this time last year, I confirmed the scary truth: this beer rivals motor oil in viscosity, looking a bit like week-old coffee sludge. And I say this in the most positive way. The Dark Lord is a beer lover's dream - a true experience to remember. Moving beyond the incredibly thick mouthfeel, the beer remains remarkably drinkable. The brewers clearly offered a half-hearted attempt to balance its huge malt level, but their failure (probably intentional) is a good thing. For consumers who prefer sweet flavors in their beers, the Dark Lord is the perfect selection. The beer weighs in at 13 percent alcohol.
NEWPORT STORM BARLEY WINE 2002
This offering from Rhode Island's only microbrewery is served in a special, cobalt blue wine bottle with a cork. It initially pours nearly flat, but some swirling reveals tiny beads of carbonation. This barley wine is lighter for the style, with a nose of pale malt and mild alcohol hints. It offers some light butterscotch notes, but the initial taste remains surprisingly dry. Eventually, the beer loosens up with a slow supply of malt flavor towards the middle and finish. As the beer warms, the flavor grows progressively more complex, with some fruit hints and good interaction between the malts. Hop bitterness serves as a counterbalance and a warming alcohol smoothes out the finish.
ANCHOR OLD FOGHORN BARLEY WINE
The original American version of the barley wine style reflects the traditional British approach. The aroma is part caramel malt and old leather, with hints of the Cascade hops employed throughout the brew. The beer pours nearly flat with some notes of baker's and lemony hop in the aroma. Old Foghorn grows increasingly full in body as it warms, with the alcohol level becoming more present. The bottle conditioning imparts some bitterness from the yeast, which mixes well with a mildly chocolate tasting malt flavor.
GETTING BETTER with AGE
One of the great qualities of imperial stouts and barley wines is their ability to benefit from aging. The ales can usually sustain a lengthy aging process (sometimes up to 20 years), resulting in a variety of complex changes. Aged beers react in a variety of ways, ranging from a softening of the hops, an enrichment of the fruit and malt esters, to some contribution from the yeast in bottle-conditioning.
VICTORY STORM KING 2001
Sampled in 2003, this two-year old imperial stout pours with a remarkable level of carbonation for a beer of its age. Immediately perceptible is this beer's signature aromatic mix of strong alcohol and hop notes. Pouring with an attractive tan head, there is a slight oxidized aroma (think wet cardboard), but otherwise it has held up well. Compared to fresh samples, there is a noticeable drop in the hop aroma, which I previously described as reminding me of a wildflower garden in bloom. When fresh, the beer possesses a strong, floral aroma, almost bordering on disinfectant. After some aging, the malt aroma shines through more, with some coffee notes and sharper, huskier barley hints. The beer's flavor well-encapsulates the spirit and flavor of darker malts, with impressive espresso and coffee notes, and some chocolate hints. The finish does contain some hop flavor, almost piney, but lacks much residual bitterness. This was another beer that lasted for two hours, all the while changing in complexity.
SIERRA NEVADA BIGFOOT BARLEY WINE 2001
Sampled in 2003, some of these bottles did not hold up well, but this one was a keeper. The Bigfoot pours with minimal head and a ruddy, off-orange color. The beer initially appears hazed and confused, throwing off an aroma mixture of citrus, deep sweet malt and yeast bitterness. The first sip reveals a zingy carbonation, followed by earthy hop flavors, which serve as a nice balance to the ample use of paler malts and the bitterness imparted by the yeast. The biggest difference between the two-year-old and a fresh sample is the reduction in the hop bitterness that plays so prominently in younger versions.