What’s Russian about an Imperial Stout?

The story of how Russia became associated with the Imperial Stout reads simultaneously as historical nonfiction, gossip column, and questionable speculation. Some of the first stories of how the British developed the Russian Imperial Stout resemble the history of the IPA, with the stout’s high gravity and high alcohol content acting as a preservative and anti-freeze agent for the journey to Russian consumers.

However, little reliable evidence has been identified to support the theory. Instead, beer historians who have studied the marketing of this stout have found simply that the Russians – and its favorite Czars – preferred dark, thick, high alcohol content beer. For example, a widely quoted passage from The History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Saviour, Southwark discusses Henry Thrale, owner of Anchor Brewery in Soutwark and famous exporter of the stout, stating, “Thrale’s Entire [a contemporary name for porter] is well known, as a delicious beverage, from the frozen regions of Russia to the burning sands of Bengal and Sumatra. The Empress of All Russia is indeed so partial to Porter that she has ordered repeatedly very large quantities for her own drinking and that of her court.” Commentators have suggested that a focus on the flamboyant Catherine the Great may have been a very effective marketing technique.

The Russians seemed to have liked British porters so much that they were excluded from the March 31, 1822 tariff introduced by the Russian government, which banned just about every other article of British manufacture. Historians speculate that Russians desired the continuation of that one particular export because they were not particularly talented at making it themselves.

The importance of the stout to the Russians is also supported by stories of a Belgian named Le Coq, who exported stout from Britain to the Baltic region during the period when Napoleon’s forces dominated Baltic ports. Le Coq was awarded the Imperial warrant for his export business and generous donations of the stout to Russian soldiers wounded in the Crimean War. Le Coq began to brew Imperial stout in Russia after an early 20th century increase in Russian import duties, but the business was nationalized by the Bolsheviks shortly after the 1917 Russian revolution. Le Coq’s family would wait over 50 years to see any compensation by the government.

The beer that the Catherine and her Russians loved was bottle-fermented with live yeast, so that it could be left on a shelf to improve with age. It was brewed from pale, amber and black malts, along with small doses of Pilsner malt. The beer was aggressively hopped with Target hops, and poured at 10% alcohol by volume. It offered notes of leather, licorice, chocolate, dark fruit and bitter hops. Characteristic of the style, the mouthfeel was thick and oily. Most Russian Imperial Stouts today reflect these features of the well-traveled Russian Imperial Stout.

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