Thursday, April 1, 2010

Big Beer Week(s) - Sprecher Russian Imperial Stout

OK, Big Beer Week (more like Big Beer Month) is finally drawing to a close. We finish with a Russian Imperial Stout - a style that doesn't really get a whole lot of love here in Wisconsin, but is ridiculously popular in the entire rest of the universe where oat stouts and milk stouts are relatively rare.

Why not Russian Imperial Stouts in Wisconsin? Good question. We have a few, but really not that many. Maybe because we don't have a huge Russian population? Eh. Doubtful. Frankly, I don't have that many good ideas for why? Care to venture a guess? I'll make a few guesses, but I wouldn't put a lot of stock in them:

Guess #1: There are already a lot of really good Russian Imperial Stouts in the universe; they are expensive and time-consuming to make and consumer demand here doesn't justify an entire batch run for most of the small breweries in this state.

Guess #1.5: Almost every brewery already makes at least one full-bodied stout and in some cases two and/or a Baltic Porter; adding a third (or fourth), Russian Imperial, would clutter the brewery's brands.

Guess #2: The Russian Imperial Stout fad is over. While they were popular a few years ago (Leinie's made one for christ's sake!), the fad is mostly over.

Although as a quick diversion, I know brewers in the state have experimented with cardamom or other spices in stouts and it seems like a brewery like Furthermore, whose regular stout is lighter-bodied, might be able to play with the style a little to produce a spiced Russian Imperial Stout that might be really interesting and compliment their lineup.

Having said all of that, let's taste one of the few Russian Imperial Stouts that this state does have to offer, eh?
Sprecher Russian Imperial Stout
BeerAdvocate (B). RateBeer (88).
Appearance: A bubbly, creamy brown head; dark, dark brown body with hints of Merlot around the edges
Aroma: big aroma that you can smell across the room; caramel and sweet malts; a lot of caramel, some chocolate, some earthy fruit of figs, plums and musty grapes; I really like the aroma
Flavor: the flavor is more muted than the aroma but is heavy on the fruity aspects with some cherry and dark chocolate coming through in the finish; this was served at about 60 degrees, so the temp on this perfect; some hop bitterness up front, with a roasty quality in the middle
Body: thinner than I expected, with a relatively astringent aftertaste and some alcohol burn in the gut
Drinkability: I'd drink one and be happy with it (I am!), but wouldn't exactly rush out to buy another 4-pack; I could see myself going a few years between 4-packs actually, but enjoying it when I get around to buying it.
Summary: I like it, but I like other RIS better (e.g., Big Bear, Ten Fidy, Darkness, Yeti, BORIS); but, frankly, I don't expect much from Wisconsin breweries for Russian Imperial Stouts - this isn't exactly our forte, so that Sprecher even makes the attempt and doesn't completely botch it is A-OK in my book, that it's pretty decent is even better; Overall impression is positive, but this is a category that features a number of world-class examples that are fairly easy to come by (3 of the 5 I've mentioned above are all widely available here in Madison and I'm assuming in the rest of the state) making drinking a poor one inexcusable and drinking even a decent one a fairly infrequent affair. Admittedly, I'm not a big RIS fan, though, so I tend not to drink a lot of the middle-of-the-road stuff in this style like I do with IPAs and even Dopplebocks or Porters. If you are a fan of RIS, I'm sure this one will be in rotation more often than it is in mine personally, but kudos to Sprecher for actually brewing it and doing right by the style.


  1. Why not Russian Imperial Stouts in Wisconsin?

    Because it's just not the culture. Just like the California beer scene from the 80s and 90s was built on West Coast pale ales and IPAs, Wisconsin's beer culture was built on well-crafted styles and some of the world's best lagers. When a place has an established culture like this, it's usually for better of the beer (even California's brewers have stuck to their tradition and continued to brew great, drinkable hoppy beers rather than the IIIIIIPAs being brewed elsewhere).

    It's in places where this history and culture doesn't exist that they've simpmly pikced up on the general American beer culture, which is to create big imperial stouts and IIPAs just to try and one up everyone else, hence why there are so many RISs.

  2. You'd think WI would have a similar beer culture to Michigan's. But, wow, does that state crank out some great RIS. I'd love for a WI brewery to step up and make a world-class Russian. Ale Asylum seems to have the balls. Central Waters? Tyranena?

  3. Jeff W, I have to disagree about California. this is the state that has Stone and Russian River, makers of Ruination and Pliny the Younger. If those can't be described as the ultimate "IIIIIIIPA's," I don't know what can.

  4. What a timely post on Russian Imperial Stouts, and the lack of quality versions in Badgerland. FYI--get to the Great Dane location in Wausau ASAP before it's gone--a big (8%), rich, chewy and flavorful RIS brewed by Pete, head brewer and overall beer nut. It is an amazing beverage enjoyed in a snifter. Word is there's only one tapping, and it's been on for a week. If close to Wausau, it's well-worth the trip!


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