I'll drink a stout any day of the year, but it's impossible to argue with dark beer in winter. Considering stresses that can accompany December, you're forgiven for reaching for stouts with a bit more nerve-soothing booze than usual. Enter imperial stout, or as I like to describe it to Irish stout loyalists: "three Guinnesses in one glass."
Since legend has it highly alcoholic stout was originally produced for Catherine the Great, the original full name is "Russian imperial stout." (Some say there's a difference between stouts labeled "imperial" vs. "Russian imperial," but I don't have time to argue about it and neither should you.) The first imperial stouts were English, and Washington state is credited with producing the first American version in 1984, but California makes some of today's best.
Ask the Internet for a list of the best imperial stouts and you may find yourself hunting down beers that are both limited-edition and crazy expensive—and perhaps aged in a booze barrel past the point where a novice can tell it's still beer. I love Firestone Walker Parabola and Deschutes The Abyss, and it's always pretty sweet (literally and figuratively) when someone pops a bottle of Bruery Black Tuesday in my presence, but let's talk about more everyday treats this time. The most expensive of the stouts below will barely scrape the $10-per-bomber mark at a reasonable store and you won't have to wait in line for any of them.
Imperial stout is my favorite beer style to cellar, but go ahead and drink any of these tonight. Letting them warm up out of the fridge for a few minutes before drinking is enough of a time investment for me.
North Coast Old Rasputin
The bearded Russian who wouldn't die is the gateway imperial stout for many, but that's only because North Coast is available pretty widely around the country. But believe this: Old Rasputin is in no way a training wheels beer. It's seriously roasty and hoppy (75 IBUs), with a long, dry, lingering bitter coffee finish. It's not hot and boozy despite it's 9% ABV, and while "balanced" is the wrong word, it's not too much of anything, either. This will be among the easiest big stout for new beer fans to track down, and novelty-seeking beer hunters should do themselves a favor and revisit this 1996-born classic.
Drake's, a Bay Area favorite slowly making inroads in other parts of California, is mostly known for its hop monsters. Drakonic, though it has a moderate hop bitterness, is all about the malt. Neither espresso-ish nor desserty, Drakonic hits it right down the middle as a dry, roasty, robust yet approachable imperial stout. There's a touch of caramel and licorice to keep things interesting along with the usual coffee and chocolate, and it's all in good balance for a beer that's almost 9%. If I was throwing a one-night imperial stout tasting with all six of the beers in this article, I'd serve this first.
Sierra Nevada Narwhal
This mega-craft brewery could coast on its flagship lineup, but instead they give us presents like Narwhal, newly released in October. Unsweetened chocolate, coffee beans, and warming alcohol are all present and accounted for but none dominate. A clean hop bitterness with a long, tingly finish tie it all together. Like Old Rasputin, this is available in 4-packs of 12-ounce bottles instead of imperial stout's dominant paradigm, the bomber. Forget the after-dinner espresso, just drink one (or two) of these.
Cismontane Black's Dawn
Coffee coffee joy joy! This relatively new coastal SoCal brewery has produced an excellent breakfast beer, if that's how you roll. Many stouts contain roasty malts that evoke coffee flavors, but this one also contains fair trade beans. I'm guessing this would make a fine entry-level imperial stout for the coffee snob in your life. Black's Dawn comes in a 16-ounce bottle, making it a wise choice for solo tasters who struggle to get through a 22-ouncer. It's also the poster child for how much a beer can change and evolve as it warms up, so sip slowly.
Port Santa's Little Helper
Santa's Little Hangover...er, Helper...has been making merry since 1997. It's among the more chewy, viscous stouts on this list and the one that most requires a glass of water alongside it. From the ridiculously huge head (pour carefully) to the smooth finish, this SoCal sipper is not foolin' around. The label gets bonus Christmas cheer points for its depiction of a shadowy Santa and Rudolph enjoying a beer at an an elf-manned bar. A bourbon barrel-aged version comes out in July—look for Santa at the same bar in his boxers.
Ballast Point Victory At Sea
OK, Victory at Sea is technically an imperial porter, but close enough for government work. I don't usually dig vanilla beers—they tend to be unbalanced and make me feel like an alcoholic grandmother slugging a bottle of vanilla extract in the pantry. This is an exception. Perhaps the addition of cold brewed San Diego coffee steers this one away from cloying and into amazing, and the thick, velvety body doesn't hurt. Though Victory at Sea is not overly sweet, the vanilla flavor does evoke ice cream, and you could make a much worse choice for the base of a beer float.
Of course there are many other great beers that could be included on this list. Tell us: what are your favorite imperial stouts from California or beyond?
About the author: Jen Muehlbauer wrote about beer in Boston and LA before settling down in the promised land of the Bay Area in 2009. She also tends bar, teaches beer classes, is a BJCP-certified beer judge, and occasionally makes a passable batch of homebrew. Follow her on Twitter at @EastBayBeerJen.