I’ve tried sugar coating this statement a few ways, but I’m just going to come out with it: The majority of imperial stouts we’ve tried this winter have not been very good. There are exceptions, usually from venerable breweries that one would expect to brew delicious, muscular, high-ABV stouts. But many of the others have been sugary, lacking in complexity, acrid and altogether unenjoyable. What gives? We think of imperial stouts as treats; sometimes the bottles are even worth waiting in line for or cost a premium. It’s extra disappointing when an expensive bottle that you’ve been saving for a special occasion turns out to be a dud.
Maybe it’s telling that our shelves here are full of twice as many barrel-aged, spiced, fruited, s’more-flavored imperial stouts as straight imperial stouts. The thinking seems to be that if a batch comes out substandard, surely throwing it in a whiskey barrel or adding cocoa nibs and vanilla will cover that up. That’s not to discount incredible barrel-aged or flavored imperial stouts, which certainly exist, but let’s get to the heart of why many breweries struggle to nail their straight imperial stouts.
To figure it out, I called brewers who make really, really good ones. First, I chatted with Surly Brewing Co.’s head brewer, Todd Haug (he of the inimitable, not-quite-to-style but still outrageously delicious Darkness). Darkness, now enjoying a decade-long run as an annual release, has been the only stout Surly’s brewed. But Haug admits that the beer was a tough S.O.B. from the get-go. Imperial stouts require huge amounts of malts and added sugars to give yeast enough to eat up, convert to plenty of alcohol, and still leave some sweetness in the beer.
“Eight years ago, when we tried to brew more Darkness is when we ran into trouble,” Haug says. “It was like you could ferment an entire other beer out of the sugars left in it. You’re putting all these raw materials and malts into the mash tun and almost overloading your system. It’s really easy for it to be an overroasty, boozy mess.” As anyone who’s tried Darkness recently knows, Surly figured out its recipe and learned to keep its yeast healthy enough to munch up all those sugars, Pac-Man-style.
“We’ve made some changes and dialed it in,” Haug says. “It’s been superconsistent for probably the last five years. With a beer like that, which you don’t brew that much of, you don’t have that many chances to nail it.”
Fair point. Most breweries release their imperial stouts once a year, meaning it’s not a recipe they tweak as often as they might for a pale ale or something easier and more regularly brewed. Ingredients change from year to year, brewers may come and go, making it difficult to keep a big beer like that consistent.
But, says Founders Brewing Co.’s brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki, imperial stouts should at least be balanced. Yes, they’re boozy; yes, they’re roasty; yes, they’re sweet; but all of those components should work in harmony.
“I like our Imperial Stout a lot, and it gets a little underappreciated in our portfolio with Breakfast Stout and KBS in there, but I find so many imperial stouts that are just out of balance. Either there’s way too much cloying sweetness or way too much burnt flavor or they’re over hopped. The key to ours, and it goes in line with my philosophy of brewing in general, is balance. It’s about getting all those extreme flavors in there but balancing them.”
He also cites yeast health and taking the time to let the yeast fully chomp on all those tasty malts for making Founders Imperial Stout as balanced as it is.
“We pride ourselves on healthy fermentation and letting yeast fully do its thing and then get out of the way. The only residual sweetness left behind is from the grains, not unfermented malts. It’s 12% ABV, which is getting to the upper threshold of what that yeast can do, so we make sure we pitch a heavy amount of yeast and give it plenty of oxygen to start that fermentation. I think that might get overlooked often.”
OK, so healthy yeast and good brewing techniques are certainly the foundation. But it’s also worth noting that both Surly and Founders brew their base stouts differently when they intend to barrel age them. Surly has recently put some Darkness in whiskey barrels for the first time, and tweaked the recipe to better interact with the barrel. Likewise, Founders ups the base malts, chocolate and coffee in Breakfast Stout before creating KBS.
So what’s the overall takeaway here? Imperial stouts are really hard to brew. They’re big, complex and taxing on brewing equipment, which is what makes them (usually) rare and delicious in the first place. I just hope that more breweries put out versions that they really consider to be treats, and not just high-ABV, cold-weather beers they’re obligated to brew.