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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

Folks, this is as serious as it gets. Double stouts, American Imperial Stouts, Foreign/Export stouts, Russian Imperial Stouts—they're big beers, dark as night and thick as motor oil.

But can beers this extreme be delicious? Oh yes. Deep in flavor, complex and rich—these dark beers inspire discussion and obsession. The release days of limited-edition favorites such as Three Floyd's Dark Lord and Portsmouth Brewery's Kate the Great become veritable beer festivals, with devoted fans traveling from far and wide to wait in line, share beers with each other, and nab their allocated bottles.

We tasted 23 tasty examples in the past few weeks and quite a few received our very highest ratings.

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Our new favorite
**** Awesome, worth remembering
*** We'd consider buying this again
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.

Ratings are subject to personal taste.

The Big Guns

Three Floyds Dark Lord (2009) Indiana, 13% ABV
This highly coveted Russian Imperial Stout pours thick and viscous--it's an intense, rich beer which commands all of your attention. Flavors include sherry and steak sauce, maple, currants, hamhock, peat, balsamic reduction, wine, and chocolate covered cherries. Some think this one is better than the 2008 version. It isn't something we could drink every day, but Dark Lord is a game changer--it expands the spectrum of what beer can be.
*****

Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (2008) Illinois, 13% ABV
This has a deep, roasty aroma. It's deliciously dry and smooth, well integrated and rich. It's less fruity than many of the others--instead, there's oak, vanilla, chocolate, burnt caramel, and bourbon. This is a dense, velvety beer that easily makes it into our list of favorites. Turn on the blues, get out your cigars.
*****

Brooklyn Black Ops New York, 11.6%
The Black Ops is drier than the Dark Lord, and slightly more approachable for the newbie. Easy drinking? Well, all things are relative. It's beautifully balanced and even, with black licorice and bourbon notes. It's more mocha than coffee, and reminded us of chocolate mousse. Several tasters called it a favorite (while others were busy fighting over the last few drops of Dark Lord.)
****1/2

Founders Imperial Stout Michigan, 10.5% ABV
The scent of this opaque beer reminded us of coffee and a black-and-white milkshake. Up front, we get rich chocolate, cherry, and sour cream flavors. It's beautifully intense and well integrated. One taster commented, "It's like chocolate wine!" It's full bodied, but it masks its high alcohol well.
****1/2

Nectar Ales Black Xantus California, 11% ABV
This rich, complex imperial stout tastes like fruity really dark chocolate, with caramel, coffee, cherry, and yeasty brioche notes. The hops are herbaceous--thyme, pink peppercorns, and even a hint of mint come through. It's beautifully balanced.
****1/4

Deschutes The Abyss (2009) Oregon, 11% ABV
If you have a bottle of this deeply boozy elixir, hold onto it for another year. If stored properly, it should mellow and age beautifully. Right now, it's still a little sharp, with rich, silk chocolate and dark coffee flavors almost overpowered by the alcohol. There are oaky notes and a hint of ash on the finish, with a bit of molasses, black cherry, and earth.
****

Odell Bourbon Barrel Stout Colorado, 10.5% ABV
This interesting stout has bourbon and fruit on the nose--we think it would be amazing paired with cherry-topped cheesecake. There's a hint of funky Belgian-style sourness in this brew, with notes of wine, pineapple, and maraschino cherries. If your drink is a Manhattan, this beer could be your new favorite. Lots of our tasters were wild over this one.
****

Dogfish Head World Wide Stout (2007) Delaware, 18% ABV
Yeah, you read that correctly. EIGHTEEN percent alcohol. Think: fortified wine. This beer is sweet, potent, and warming, with caramel notes and tons of plummy fruit. We'd prefer something a little drier, but it's an experience to try this once.
***3/4

Moderate Imperials and Foreign/Export Stouts

Brasserie Dieu du Ciel Péché Mortel Quebec, 9.5% ABV
Delicious. It's silky and chocolaty and beautifully balanced. There's a hint of hazelnut in this beautiful beer, along with marshmallow, vanilla, and roast espresso on the finish. It has great body and just enough hop and carbonation to taste clean. Easy to drink, despite its 9.5% alcohol.
****1/2

20100318imperialmoderates.jpgNorth Coast Old Rasputin California, 9% ABV
This beer balances dry dark chocolate and cocoa powder flavors with sweet blueberry and concord grape notes. A roasty espresso bite ties it all together. Drinkable and well made, we'd love to always have a few of these in the fridge.
****1/2

Heavy Seas Siren Noire 8% ABV
This imperial stout is fermented with Belgian chocolate nibs, which give it a rich mole flavor. It's well balanced, with good carbonation--it's approachable and delicious. Coffee and malted-milkshake notes round out the taste. This would be a great beer for those who aren't sure they like imperial stouts.
****1/2

Two Brothers Northwind Imperial Stout Illinois, 8.5% ABV
We smelled molasses and cranberry on the nose of this stout. It's thick and potent, with a concentrated raisin flavor and very little carbonation. Chocolate and raspberry flavors are prominent; there's not much roasty bitterness, but it's an elegant, full-flavored beer.
****

Bear Republic Big Bear Black Stout California, 8.1% ABV
This creamy malty beer is quite drinkable considering the strength. Mild coffee and chocolate flavor without very much heavy roast--there are fruity hops here, but some found the finish a little metallic.
***1/2

Pike XXXXX Extra Stout Washington, 7% ABV
This drinkable stout has real roast flavor, which we loved. There's a bit of briney olive scent. The flavor reminded some tasters of Campari and chocolate-covered oranges. It's not a super-thick stout, but it's flavorful and easy to drink.
***1/2

For Hop-Lovers

Victory Storm King Pennsylvania, 9.1% ABV
You'll get hops right away on the nose of this one--they're fruity and bold. Some tasters wished they were a little more integrated into the flavor of this, but more roast comes out as this beer warms. We were reminded of Tootsie Rolls and cloves as we tasted this--it's not a thick molasses/chocolate kind of Imperial Stout.
***1/2

Stone Russian Imperial Stout California, 10.5% ABV
Licorice flavors abound in this sweet RIS. Citrusy marmalade-like hops and vanilla creme brulée are also prominent flavors. The roast only comes out in the finish, and there's a bit of alcohol afterburn.
***1/2

Great Divide Yeti Colorado, 9.5% ABV
Green grassy hops and grapefruit flavors really hit you on this one, but it also has a full roastiness and some chocolatey richness. The finish reminds us of coffee, though some said that due to the potent hops, they wouldn't guess that Yeti was a stout if they tasted it blindfolded.
***1/2

Sippable Imperial Stouts

Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti Colorado, 9.5%
This mellow and integrated version of Great Divide's Yeti tastes a bit like a handful of chocolate covered espresso beans. Roast, and chocolate flavors are more concentrated than the unoaked version, but there's still a hint of fruity hops. We noticed a bit of clove and sesame.
***1/2

Hoppin' Frog B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher Oatmeal-Imperial Stout
Ohio, 9.4%
This thick beer has sweet blackberry jam notes, and enough roast to remind some tasters of a PB&J. The oatmeal gives it a smooth richness we liked, though some wished for a little more bitterness.
***

Thirsty Dog Siberian Night Ohio, 9.7% ABV
This beer is mellow and deep, with some fine carbonation to lighten it up and cleans the palate. We tasted wood and chocolate, caramel, marshmallows, cherry candy, and toasted rice. Some found it a little sweet.
***

Hoppin' Frog Barrel-Aged B.O.R.I.S. Ohio, 9.4% ABV
On the nose: strong bourbon, which dominates the flavor as well. A bit of roast still comes through, but there's a pruney vanilla sweetness. Several tasters found this beer a bit overwhelming, but if you like port, you might love this.
***

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout New York, 10% ABV
Raisins and prunes, roast coffee, and chocolate flavors dominate this potent beer--it reminded some tasters of black cherry soda. It's less smooth than the Black Ops, and a little fruity for some tasters.
***

Cisco Brewery's The Woods #3 Massachusetts, unknown ABV
This stout is aged in rum barrels, but there isn't a heavy rum or oaky flavor here. There are fruity, raisiny notes that reminded us of a nice Belgian dubbel, and a hint of tangerine. We wish this had a little more roast going on.
***

Disclosure: All beers except the Black Xantus, Péché Mortel, Old Rasputin, Siren Noire, Big Bear, Storm King, and Brooklyn Black Chocolate were review samples.

About the author: Maggie Hoffman also writes about cooking for Pithy and Cleaver.

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