Origination stories for beer styles can often times be convoluted, so naturally the conception of the Russian Imperial Stout is just as complicated, if not more so. The link between the stout and Russia begins with a well-documented visit to England by Peter the Great in 1698, where he “fell in love with stout beers,” with the stout name describing only its strength, not its color.
But, of course, Peter the Great’s link to the RIS is disputed and the correlation often overlooked in many histories, though many Russian Imperial Stouts today bear his name.
In the early 18th century, the English had struck brewing gold in experimenting with darker ale styles – with the first porter appearing around 1721, then the Stout or Stout Porter not long after. The Anchor Brewery of London (under the ownership of Henry Thrale) appears to have first shipped strong ales to the Balkan states and even the Imperial court in Russia.
The first shipment of strong porter to Russia is claimed to have not survived the ~1,500 mile voyage, yet their second attempt – sporting a much higher alcohol and bitterness, found success and quickly became popular in European Russia. One such fan of the style was Empress Catherine the Great (1729-1796), who started receiving shipments via , What The Hell Is A Russian Imperial Stout?Barclay Perkins Anchor Brewery after 1781, known then as an Entire (the original name for a matured, strong stout). Again, this would all be less complicated if not based on various accounts, but it all adds to the lore of the style.
Today, the bulk of Russian Imperial Stouts are produced in the United States, with the term “Imperial” becoming synonymous with a double or stronger version of most any given style (Imperial IPA, Imperial Stout, Imperial Porter, etc.) The BJCP definition accounts for a dark, higher alcohol (7 to 12%), generally hoppier stout (50 to 90 IBU), conveying flavors of dark chocolate, fruit esters, coffee, dark fruits and offering a chewy, velvety and luscious mouthfeel.
Many within the style can come off as “hot” or overly boozy within 6 months of packaging, so brewers often recommend cellaring for at least that long to make for a mellower tasting.