With the calendar turning to November, we’re finally ready to admit that it’s officially warming beer season. This means the time is right for barrel-aged beers and imperial stouts and porters. A healthy diet of these higher alcohol content, bold, robust beers is sure to keep you feeling toasty and cozy until the spring thaw. And while we could write for days about all the various high-ABV warming beers available, today we’re going to stick to imperial stouts.
Which brings us to the obvious question: what exactly is an imperial stout? Technically, the term “imperial stout” refers to a stout that is more loaded with over-the-top roasted malts, chocolate, coffee, and other rich, robust flavors while also being higher in alcohol as compared to traditional stouts.
You’ve likely seen the term “imperial” added before other beers like porters and even IPAs. While its genesis is a little cloudy, it’s believed by many that the term comes from beers that were brewed for the Imperial Court of Catherine the Great in the 18th century. That’s why you sometimes see imperial stouts referred to as “Russian” imperial stouts.
Now that we know a little bit more about imperial stouts, it’s time to actually drink some. But I’ll do more than just drink them. Today I’m going to blindly nose, taste, and then rank eight imperial stouts. Keep reading to see how it all turned out. Maybe your favorite imperial stout won it all.
Here’s the lineup:
- Southern Tier Warlock
- North Coast Old Rasputin
- Bell’s Expedition Stout
- Alesmith Speedway Stout
- Great Divide Yeti
- Fremont Dark Star
- Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout
- Sierra Nevada Narwhal
Part 1: The Taste
A nose of dried fruit, dark chocolate, pie crust, and fall spices greets you before your first sip. It’s welcoming, but the palate is a little too pumpkin-centric for my liking. There are also roasted malts, more chocolate, ginger, allspice, and other spices. It’s just a bit too heavy-handed on the spice and pumpkin.
This beer has a light nose of dark chocolate, raisins, and freshly brewed coffee. While it doesn’t have a ton of aromas, it’s very inviting. The palate continues this trend with more dried fruits, roasted malts, coffee, chocolate, and lightly bitter hops. It’s easy to drink, but lighter in flavor than I’d prefer.
Complex notes of freshly brewed espresso, dark chocolate, roasted malts, caramel, and toasted coconut greet you before your first sip. This continues into the palate. Sipping it reveals more coffee beans, buttery caramel, milk chocolate, almond cookies, and lightly floral hops. Overall, it’s a very well balanced beer.
Licorice, roasted malts, coffee, dark chocolate, and oats can be found on the nose. It definitely draws you in. The flavor lives up to the hype started by the nose. It’s filled with dark chocolate, coffee beans, dried fruits, roasted malts, oatmeal, and light caramel. The finishing is warming, robust, slightly bitter, and leaves you craving more.
Aromas of molasses candy, caramel, roasted malts, coffee, and dark chocolate are prevalent on the nose. The palate begins with caramel candy and sweet chocolate, but gradually moves into bitter coffee and roasted malts and eventually slightly floral, grassy hops.
This beer draws you in with aromas of freshly-brewed coffee, chocolate, roasted malts, and light, grassy hops. The palate is slightly less memorable than the nose. There are more notes of coffee, bitter, dark chocolate, and roasty malts. But that’s about it. Decent, but not overly exciting.
Nosing this beer is like taking a dive into a world filled with aromas like freshly brewed coffee, dark chocolate, dried fruits, bready malts, and roasted malts. Drinking it brings forth notes of sweet caramel, cocoa powder, coffee beans, oats, molasses candy, and slightly smoky roasted malts. The finish is a creamy mix of bitterness and sweetness.
There isn’t much going on with this beer’s nose. Faint chocolate and maybe some dried fruits, but really not much else. There’s more going on with the palate. There are notes of roasted malts, more bitter chocolate, raisins, and coffee. All in all, it’s a little generic and unexciting though.
Part 2: The Rankings
8) Bell’s Expedition Stout (Taste 8)
Average Price: $18 for a six-pack
This popular 10.5% ABV Russian imperial stout is known for its mix of rich, sweet malts, dark chocolate, and dried fruit flavors. Like many higher alcohol content stouts, it’s crafted to be cellared in order to open up even more bold, memorable flavors.
I’m not here to tell you that Bell’s Expedition Stout is a bad beer. It’s not. It’s just not all that exciting either.
7) Southern Tier Warlock (Taste 1)
Average Price: $14.99 for a four-pack
Not only is Southern Tier Warlock an imperial stout, but it’s also a pumpkin stout. Brewed with ale yeast, four different malts, CTZ hops, as well as pumpkin and spices, it’s known for its bold flavor profile of pumpkin, coffee, and chocolate.
If you enjoy both imperial stouts and pumpkin beers, this is the beer for you. Otherwise, stay far away from the pumpkin-spiced stout. It’s just a little too much.
6) Sierra Nevada Narwhal (Taste 6)
Average Price: $12.99 for a six-pack
This seasonal imperial stout is available from September to December. It’s brewed with a glut of malts, including Caramelized malts, Chocolate, Carafa III, Estate Pale, Honey, Roasted Barley, Smoked, and Two-row Pale. The recipe also consists of ale yeast and Cascade and Ekuanot hops. The result is a highly complex, flavorful stout.
If you’re looking for a fairly basic, straightforward imperial stout with coffee, chocolate, and malts, this is a great choice. If you’re looking for a little more than that, let the search continue.
5) Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout (Taste 2)
Average Price: $10.99 for a four-pack
There are few imperial stouts as traditional as Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout. Surprisingly low in alcohol for the style, this 7% ABV beer is brewed with simple ingredients like water, roasted malt, malted barley, cane sugar, yeast, and hops. That’s it. Simple, elegant, and rich.
Samuel Smith’s manages to have a ton of aroma and flavor even with its 7% ABV. It could just use a little kick of extra aroma and flavor to really put it over the top.
4) Great Divide Yeti (Taste 5)
Average Price: $13.99 for a six-pack
Great Divide’s most well known beer is likely its 9.5% imperial stout called Yeti. It’s well known for its balanced flavor profile of bold, roasted malts, chocolate, floral, and lightly bitter hops. It’s a truly unique imperial stout.
This is a truly complex beer. The mix of sweetness, dark chocolate and coffee, and lightly bitter hops makes this one of the most memorable imperial stouts on the market.
3) Alesmith Speedway Stout (Taste 3)
Average Price: $14.99 for a four-pack of 16-ounce cans
Alesmith’s flagship beer is its iconic 12% ABV imperial stout. This award winner is known for its bold flavor profile of dried fruits, roasted malts, and robust coffee from locally sourced, real roasted coffee.
There’s a reason Alesmith Speedway Stout is so popular. It’s loaded with chocolate, roasted malts, and real coffee beans. It’s a can’t miss imperial stout.
2) Fremont Dark Star (Taste 4)
Average Price: $12.50 for a six-pack
This robust, rich, award-winning imperial stout is adorned with a massive dragon. It lets you in on the fact that you’re about to crack open a behemoth of a beer featuring roasted barley, 2-row Pale, C-60, Carafa 2, and Chocolate malts as well as flaked oats and Magnum and Willamette hops.
This offering from Fremont is available year-round, but really hits the spot during the colder months. Coffee, chocolate, roasted malts, and light hops, this beer has it all.
1) North Coast Old Rasputin (Taste 7)
Average Price: $9.99 for a six-pack
Grigori Rasputin was a mystic and an extremely divisive character in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Russia. North Coast named this Russian imperial stout for this odd historical character. It’s 9% ABV, pitch black in color, and known for its rich, robust, roasted malt, dark chocolate-centered flavor profile.
When it comes to well balanced, complex Imperial stouts, it’s difficult to beat North Coast’s Old Rasputin. It’s a perfect mix of roasty bitterness and sweetness.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
After partaking in this blind taste test, I discovered one important thing about my palate when it comes to imperial stouts: while I love the indulgent flavors of sweet chocolate and caramel, I need a little mix of coffee and roasted malt bitterness as well, and a light hint of floral hops for me to truly enjoy the beer. It’s all about how the various flavors combine to make one well balanced flavor experience.