By Jim Vorel

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“Let’s Talk Beer Styles” is a monthly feature that accompanies Paste’s large-scale blind craft beer style tastings/rankings. The first month covered the history and modern role of American pale ale, and the next few subsequently tackled everything from Black IPA to classical pilsner to American IPA. The latest covers non-barrel aged imperial stout, of which we just blind-tasted a whopping 102 examples.

Every time I begin work on one of these “Let’s Talk Beer Styles” pieces as a companion to one of our blind style tastings, I do so with a deep breath and the acknowledgement that I’m about to go diving into a sea of dubious history. Put as simply as possible, there is just a ton of misinformation out there regarding the history of many classic beer styles, and much of it is very hard to dislodge, once it enters the public consciousness. It’s not that the misinformation has been inserted into the narrative for any kind of malicious reason—instead, the incorrect information typically serves a comfortable, easily digestible narrative. This should never be surprising to us: We, as a species, like our stories neat, tidy and easily repeatable. Complexity just serves to muck things up.

Such it is with styles such as IPA, and again I found the same phenomenon with imperial stout/Russian imperial stout. The “Russia” connection in particular has been the subject of mythologizing over the course of hundreds of years, with information that began as marketing/advertising copy from breweries eventually finding its way into textbooks and historical records. I can’t claim to offer a perfect history here, but I’m going to at least try and base it on writers who have done their historical research and consulted actual, primary sources. And if you really care about beer, I certainly encourage you to took for sourcing, when reading this sort of thing.

Anyway. Imperial stout … that heady, roasty nectar of the gods. I remember a time, when I was first getting into craft beer around 2007, that “Russian imperial stout” was likely the end-all, be-all style of American craft brewing. At that time, most of those beers were what we would think of today as “standard” imperial stouts: Few adjuncts such as coffee or cocoa nibs, and even fewer that were fruited, soured or otherwise flavored. Barrel-aged stouts were a mystical rarity that only the most intense beer geeks had sampled from breweries such as Goose Island or Founders. It was the age of “imperializing” and “extreme beer,” when many craft beer converts and upstart breweries were pushing ABV boundaries in search of the biggest, brashest flavors possible. It only makes sense that imperial stout was their vehicle.

Today, the market has matured substantially. The phrase “imperial stout” has broadened significantly, and now may conjure the idea of a template to beer geeks: A beer style that is a blank canvas for experimentation. The American beer market takes imperial stouts and does everything imaginable to them, and in doing so they’ve somewhat decreased the style’s reputation as the King of Craft Beer. In 2017, you’re just as likely to find highly rated sours up near the tops of online beer rankings as you are a barrel-aged stout. Non-barrel-aged imperial stouts, meanwhile, have slipped way down the rankings. Look no further than the base version of Three Floyds Dark Lord, which went from #2 overall on Beer Advocate to not even appearing in the top 250 in 2017. Times change, folks.

So let’s get into it: The history and modern role of (non-barrel aged) imperial stout, and some versions that are absolutely essential. Keep in mind that we just blind-tasted 102 of these things; you can see the full ranking here.