I always thought I’d make a good Russian: I love cold weather, I can ice skate (kinda), and I can appreciate a bleak and tragic love story with the best of them. I even enjoy the balalaika! Why would I fail the Russian citizenship test? Vodka.
I mean, how do they do it? Granted, my experience with the stuff is pretty much limited to the plastic jugs available to you when you’re 19 and have to take what you can get. (That and the spicy shot of horseradish infused vodka I diligently drained in a midtown Manhattan bar where I was the only customer not affiliated with the Russian mob.) Fortunately for me, there is an alternative: the Russian Imperial Stout (RIS).
Much like IPAs, the Russian Imperial’s beginnings are tied up in Britain’s colonial aspirations. After visiting England in the early 1700s, Peter the Great got a taste for dark beer and requested some be sent to him back home. The obsequious English did so immediately, but the beer spoiled before reaching St. Petersburg. On their second attempt they upped the alcohol and hops (as with IPAs on their way to colonial India) and thus was born this, the most appropriate beer to drink on a cold night, ever.
The specs on Russian Imperials vary pretty widely, with one characteristic remaining unchanged: they are BIG. They always have a high abv, at least 8%. The one I’m drinking right now, from Founders Brewing, is 10.5% and looked like motor oil when I poured it. Every one I’ve tried has been opaque and near-black, but the hop character ranges from barely there to whoa there. Founders is toasty, a little fruity, and fairly dry — a state I aim to achieve during winter, myself.
These beers are perfect for wintry nights since they warm you from the inside out. They are meant to be sipped slowly and one can last you all night. Allow these dignitaries to warm up a bit before enjoying them, and serve them in a glass with an open bowl like a tulip glass.
Others I would definitely recommend include:
- Sierra Nevada’s Narwhal
- Ten FIDY by Oskar Blues
- Great Lakes Blackout Stout
- Siberian Night from Thirsty Dog Brewing
You have probably seen North Coast Brewing’s Old Rasputin, which features an iconic image of the madman on its label. It’s one of the highest rated beers in the country, and try as I may, I can’t make myself like it. I need to try it again in case my palate has matured, but last time I thought the taste and feel of alcohol was overwhelming. But don’t take my word for it; give it a try.
One semi-reputable website claimed the RIS fell out of popularity in England in the early 1900s and nearly became extinct, were it not for the Go-Big-Or-Go-Home approach to brewing the Americans are so proud of. We latched onto the big style and are now pretty much the exclusive brewers of it.
It makes sense if you think about it. Russians and Americans are not all that dissimilar: we are both used to huge tracts of open land, to a culture rich in art and history, to knowing what is best for everyone else, to embarrassingly transparent displays of power, and to getting what we want. This is probably why we can’t get along. As a Non-Old-White-Dude, I just want to say Relax, have a beer.