Sometimes, terms become so commonplace that we take them at face value, and without giving too much thought to how they came to fruition. Take, for example, the Russian imperial stout — a beer style synonymous with the ominous jet-black, velvety, and rich brews that break through the double-digit ABV threshold. Along with sours and IPAs, Russian imperial stouts (RIS) have become one of the most coveted styles on the American craft beer market. We’ve seen ones touting a laundry list of adjuncts, from peanut butter, coffee, and cinnamon to potato chips; some that have spent a few years in bourbon barrels; and others in their pure, unadulterated glory. When we really break down the term, though, the name doesn’t totally add up. Stout? Sure, like Guinness. Imperial? Makes sense, high-ABV like an imperial IPA. And Russian? Surely they must have been invented in Russia. Well, as it turns out, that’s not the case.
From Porter to Stout
The origins of the Russian imperial stout are a bit shaky. The supposed story begins in 1698, when a young Peter Alekseyevich Romanov — who went on to become Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia — visited England and fell in love with stouts. However, historical evidence clashes with this theory, as actual records of the first porters and stouts didn’t appear until the 1720s. It was in 1721 that porters were first brewed in the U.K. as a darker, more robust version of an English brown ale designed to warm up the local seaport workers during long shifts. It wasn’t long after that the extra stout porter was introduced as a beefier, high-ABV, heavily hopped version of the beer that could be shipped overseas to Russia and the Baltic countries without spoiling in transit. At the time, given their slightly pricier ingredient bill, stout porters were viewed as the more premium offering in the stout lineup, which inherently contributed to its popularity among the wealthy.
This is where the Anchor Brewery of London enters the picture. Under the ownership of politician Henry Thrale, the brewery was among the first to ship its beer overseas to Russia in the mid-1700s. Some of the beer made its way to the Imperial Court of Russia, where then-Empress Catherine the Great took quite a liking to the style and its warming effects in the notoriously frigid nation.
Concurrently, in 1781, Anchor Brewery was purchased by Robert Barclay and John Perkins, who subsequently renamed the brewery Barclay, Perkins & Co. That year, the brewery began regularly sending shipments of its stout, called “Entire,” directly to Catherine. According to “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” a 1796 diary entry from artist Joseph Farington reads: “I drank some porter Mr. Lindoe had from Thrale’s brewhouse. He said it was specially brewed for the Empress of Russia.”
For the next 100 years, the style enjoyed major popularity in Russia, and the Barclay, Perkins & Co. stout became the epitome of the style. In the “Oxford Companion,” a recipe from 1856 shows that the brew was over 10 percent ABV and included over 10 pounds of hops per barrel, proving that this beer was a truly bitter, menacing, flavor bomb of a stout. In 1882, Russia established a ban on British imports, but made an exception for porters and stouts. Allegedly, Russian and Baltic brewers were unable to successfully replicate the style at the time, as their water sources didn’t have the necessary profile to mimic the U.K. style.
All the while, the term “imperial” was adopted by British brewers and retailers in the 1820s and ’30s. The full title of Russian imperial stout didn’t appear in beer vernacular until the 1970s when Barclay, Perkins & Co. debuted its Courage Russian Imperial Stout, named after John Courage, the brewer who supposedly brewed the batches of stout that Catherine the Great was so fond of.
The Americanized RIS
This marks the pivotal moment when the style and name made its way out west. A beer importing company called Merchant du Vin in Seattle came across the newly coined RIS in the early ‘80s, and convinced Samuel Smith Old Brewery in England to brew an imperial stout for the American market. It wasn’t long before the U.S. fell for the style as well. The serendipitous combo of the RIS’s introduction and the U.S. craft beer boom of the ‘90s and 2000s led to the rampant creation of domestic Russian imperial stouts.
Guinness had been enjoyed in America since the early 1800s, but one of the earliest examples of an American-brewed Russian imperial stout is the 1996 release of North Coast Brewing Company’s Old Rasputin. It wasn’t long before other early American movers and shakers in craft beer started producing their own takes on the style. Indiana’s 3 Floyds Brewing released its first batch of the coveted Dark Lord RIS in 2002, and Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery debuted Ten Fidy — named for its 10.5 percent ABV — in 2007. In true American fashion, these beers tend to be more bold, bitter, and hoppier than the malt-forward, old-school Russian imperial stouts from the U.K. To this day, plenty of American craft breweries still pride themselves on their Russian imperial stout game, but in the mid-2010s, The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) redefined RIS terminology with a pen stroke.
The BJCP Steps In
In 2015, an update of the BJCP’s style guide shortened the RIS title to simply imperial stout, presumably to avoid confusion about its origin. Another edition of the guidelines arrived in 2021 and made no changes to the name but included more info about the style’s roots. Right under the title, the imperial stout entry reads: “Traditionally an English style, but it is currently much more popular and widely available in America and internationally, where it is a craft beer favorite, not a historical curiosity.” Later on, the entry includes a small call-out to the former title, admitting that the style is “sometimes known as Russian imperial stout or RIS.”
Many American breweries — like the aforementioned 3 Floyds — have since dropped “Russian” from the names of their imperial stouts. Unsurprisingly, there’s been little backlash from folks overseas — but the 23andMe results are in, and these beers simply aren’t Russian.
*Image retrieved from Todd Taulman via stock.adobe.com