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The Imperial Stouts That Time Forgot

Today’s imperial stouts are packed with everything from pasilla chiles to gingerbread. But just a decade ago, that wasn’t the case. Aaron Goldfarb on the four-ingredient archetypes that paved the way, but failed to stand the test of time.

Derek called before 7 a.m., waking me up. He was in New Hampshire where it was snowy and freezing. He’d been standing outside, on Market Street in Portsmouth, overnight. He told me they were still a few hours away from opening the brewpub and letting everyone inside. By 10 a.m., though, he was pretty sure he’d have two bottles of Kate the Great.

Kate the who?

There’s no more prominent beer entry for the “Where are they now?” file than Portsmouth Brewery’s Kate the Great, a Russian imperial stout that was Beer Advocate’s No. 3 beer in the world in January of 2008 (courtesy of the Way Back Machine). Today, Kate the Great isn’t just unranked, it literally does not exist, having not been brewed since 2012. Most younger beer drinkers probably haven’t even heard of the once-mighty Kate. The same surely holds true for beers like Surly Darkness (No. 7 in January, 2008), De Struise Black Albert (No. 10), AleSmith Speedway Stout (No. 12) and Stone Imperial Russian Stout (No. 16).

These are just some of the many imperial stouts that time forgot. Why, though, have they been buried by the sands of time?

If 3 Floyds’ Dark Lord (2004) starts the rarity era, it also starts the big, boozy stout era. And while Dark Lord is still pretty famous (if not still critically acclaimed), many other stouts that followed it are mere footnotes, barely remembered except by older beer geeks holding court on their creaky barstools.

That Kate the Great—first released in 2005—was nothing more than a simple, four-ingredient beer. Surly Darkness—first released in 2007—was likewise a four-ingredient stout with its own “day” up in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, where the brewery was located. Ditto Black Albert and Stone Imperial Russian Stout. Speedway was one of the only stouts at the top to add a fifth ingredient: locally roasted coffee.

By contrast, all of the stouts that dominate the top 250 in 2017 are utterly crammed with adjuncts. Out of the 94 stouts or porters that currently occupy the list only one, so far as I can tell, is a simple four-ingredient beer. That’s Everett, a 7.5-percent ABV American porter made using pale, caramel and chocolate malts, Columbus hops, ale yeast and well water. Its brewer, though, is Hill Farmstead, the Vermont brewery often hailed as the best in the entire world. The message is clear: If you’re Hill Farmstead, the geeks might accept something simple and well-crafted, but everyone else best load up their beers with more toppings than a 16 Handles frozen yogurt.

Consider Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout Double Barrel Aged, the No. 7 beer in the world today, which includes Peruvian cacao nibs, ancho and pasilla chiles, cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla beans and is aged in apple brandy and rum barrels. Or, Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout, brewed with a blend of coffees and “imported” chocolates and aged in bourbon barrels have also aged Michigan maple syrup. Go even further down the list and it looks like a dessert menu at The Cheesecake Factory: coconut, licorice, hazelnuts, cookies, gingerbread, turbinado sugar, Neapolitan ice cream (for real). In about a decade, the archetypal “impressive” stout went from one that had a complexity, built purely on its malts, to one that’s—at the minimum—aged in barrels with an adjunct or two—like current No. 1 beer Toppling Goliath’s Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout, coffee-infused and aged in bourbon barrels.

Though Kate the Great had begun to fall out of favor with the geek elite by 2012—it no longer ranked in the top 100—Portsmouth could have probably continued selling it if the beer’s creator and Portsmouth’s longtime brewmaster, Tod Mott, hadn’t decided to part ways with the brewery. Portsmouth generously let him take his recipes with him, but when Mott’s new spot, Tributary Brewing Co., finally opened in nearby Kittery, Maine, in September of 2014, there was no Kate the Great on the menu. Instead, seven months later, Mott released his new, modernized take on the beer: a Russian imperial stout aged in a variety of apple brandy, port, Islay whisky and rum barrels. Ironically, he called it Mott the Lesser.

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