Editor's Note: Ask a what? A Certified Cicerone®. That is, a beer expert who has passed a particular certification exam administered by the Craft Beer Institute. You can think of them as beer sommeliers.

Russian Imperial Stout

This may be the time when you can find spiced Christmas beers and hearty winter warmers on the shelves of your local beer shop, but it's also the season to really enjoy the rich, chocolaty flavor of porters and stouts...and their Imperial big siblings. But which are the best of the bunch? And what should you eat with this style of beer?

We asked beer experts from around the country for their favorite porters and stouts, from the relatively light Guinness to the deepest, darkest Russian Imperial option.

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Anne Becerra of The Ginger Man in NYC.

"I will always have a soft spot for Dieu du Ciel's Peche Mortel, an imperial coffee stout from Montreal. This was my first real favorite beer, the one that had me calling grocery stores and bars and tracking down whatever few bottles were available in New York at the time. It's so rich, full bodied and complex with flavors that mimic a really great espresso. At 9.5%, this beer is a great way to finish off a meal or to drink as a nightcap, it ages incredibly well, and I just never ever get tired of it."—Anne Becerra (The Ginger Man)

This is the toughest question for me, as this is MY FAVORITE style of beer. I love the full bodied, rich, chocolate flavors you can get from these beers. I do like higher in ABV so I can add them to my cellar and watch them develop over time. My recommendation is always buy a few bottles. Try one now and properly cellar the others. If you can, find a brewery that has an annual release stout like Stone Brewing Co's Imperial Russian Stout or Port Brewing Co's Older Viscosity. It takes time and patience, but once you get a 4 or 5 year vertical, open them up and see how they have changed over the years."—Bryan Rounds (Central Coast Distributing)

"I've been a huge fan of Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout for a long time. It's got a great, balanced flavor with a nice mix of malt bitterness coupled with sweetness from the oatmeal. The oats also provide for an outstanding mouthfeel. It's just a fantastically enjoyable beer that will allow you to drink several in a sitting. Try it with a wonderful Molé dish and see what happens."—Christopher Barnes (I Think About Beer)

"My old standby is Guinness. It's low alcohol so I can have a pint and not be on the floor. It's got a tinge of sour and is dry, both qualities to make it easy to drink and pair with rich foods. Guinness easily pairs up with simple sandwiches and burgers, oysters on the half shell, pumpkin soup, and dark chocolate."—Valerie Smith (Ecliptic Brewing)

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Judy Neff of Pints and Plates in Baltimore

"Anchor Porter is the original American porter and they have done it better than anyone ever since. The robust roast is balanced by a creaminess that finishes dry enough to keep wanting another sip. My favorite pairing with this porter is a charred, freshly ground hamburger topped with mushrooms and Manchego cheese."—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)

"My favorite stout this time of year is Founders Breakfast Stout. Brewed with bitter chocolate, premium coffee, and flaked oats, this beer is just about perfect. The flaked oats give it a slick and viscous mouthfeel. The aroma is straight up java but the flavor explodes with complexity. Roastiness, chocolate, hop bitterness, dark fruit and alcohol warmth perform together in perfect harmony. The beer is strong enough to age at 8.3% ABV but the freshness of the coffee will fade so it is best drunk as soon as possible. Obviously this beer works well as at desert with a chocolate raspberry tort, but try it with brunch. Pancakes and waffles with a Breakfast Stout on the side is divine."—Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)

"Favorite stout or porter is a really hard question. There's so much diversity and there are so many great examples, I don't know if I could ever pick one. But I do have a favorite stout/porter pairing: It was grilled lamb with kimchi paired with Maui Coconut Porter. The light roasted character of the porter was a perfect match for the char on the lamb, and the kimchi did wonders with this coconut character of the porter."—Michael Ferrari (Luck)

"One of my favorite stouts is Courage Imperial Russian Stout from Wells & Youngs in Bedford, England. It is still brewed just like it was back in the late 1700's when they brewed it for Catherine the Great of Russia, for which this style of strong stout was named. This original example is much more balanced and sessional than most subsequent American versions, in which hop bitterness and burnt grains often dominate the flavor. Its perfect balance allows all the subtle notes of biscuity malt, dark chocolate, espresso, licorice root, pear, light smoke, and woodsy hops to come through in rich harmony. This 10% ABV treat is only brewed once per year, but will age well for many; and pairs well with charred beef or lamb, dark chocolates, and cold nights."—Aaron Libera (Sanford Homebrew Shop)

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Jesse Vallins of The Saint in Toronto

"St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout. When I was just a young budding beer geek, I, like most people my age, had only tried Guinness and didn't think much of it, and because of that, didn't think much of stouts in general. I was drinking at the great bar, C'est What in Toronto, and tried the St. Ambroise on the advice of a friend. It blew me away, the creamy mouthfeel, the chocolate, the roasty coffee, the balance, and the depth that a beer under 5% could have. It changed the way I saw stout. I've come a long way since then, and it's still one of my all time favourite beers. I like to have a rich creamy, bloomy rind cheese, like Pierre Robert or Delice de Bourgogne, with oatmeal stouts. On one level, the creaminess of the stout and the cheese resonate, and at the same time the dark, roasty bitterness contrasts like black coffee and ice cream."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)

"My current favourite, which just arrived at my local liquor store here in Ontario is: Mackeson Triple XXX Stout from Carib Brewery, Trinidad & Tobago I think this milk chocolate-flavoured brew sets the bar for milk stouts worldwide. It is a stunner of a beer, a stout sweetened with lactose and caramel, it has the creaminess and airy bubbles of an ice cream float with milk-chocolate notes that move to a drier, dark chocolate finish. So yummy!"—Crystal Luxmore (beer writer)

"My favorite stout has to be Bell's Kalamazoo Stout. Kalamazoo just looks like how a stout should look. I know this may sound funny, but when you pick this beer up to take the first sip and see the tan head and the dark body of the beer, you just know it is going to be a great experience. This stout is so well rounded with just a little chocolate and a little coffee. The best thing to pair with this luxurious stout would be a warm chocolate brownie topped with real vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup."—Brian Hoppe (Hy-Vee)

"My current favorite porter, Grimm Brothers' Master Thief, is rich and smooth with dark notes of cocoa powder, whispers of smoke, hints of coffee and a pleasantly tame hop bite that balances the sweet malts. A burger piled high with thick slices of smokey bacon pairs wonderfully with the smokey notes of Master Thief while the rich chocolate of the beer embraces the juicy, caramelized grill lines on the patty."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)

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Joshua A. Cass of 821 Cafe in Richmond, VA

"One of the most intriguing stouts, and indeed my favorite, is Harvey's A. Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout. The recipe is based on the original Russian imperial stout recipes that were developed and shipped to the Czars, and great lengths were taken to ensure it stayed true to the flavors one would find in those historic ales. This means that there is an underlying sourness mingling with the plush flavors of coffee and chocolate. Bottles from 2003 and earlier were cork finished, allowing a bit of oxygen in, creating amazing umami flavors of oloroso sherry and sometimes soy sauce. This somewhat acquired taste bacame oddly addictive to me, and I fear that it may be lost forever as the brewery has moved to crown cap enclosures. I like to sit and explore the different layers of flavor, but if I were forced to eat something, I'd play up the rare savory qualities of the beer by pairing it with game meats like venison or wild boar with earthy wild mushrooms."—Joshua A. Cass (821 Cafe)

"Founder's Porter is a favorite of mine. It has a luscious toffee note balanced with a great roast flavor that is surprisingly well balanced with their somewhat generous hopping for the style. I love it with grilled food. We like to grill some ribeye and serve with fingerling potatoes tossed in blue cheese crumbles and maybe some asparagus...definitely some asparagus."—John Wyzkiewicz (Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant)

"A favorite classic of mine is Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout. Arguably the benchmark of the Russian Imperial Stout style, I find this to be one I often go to as an after-dinner dessert beer. It's strong at 7% ABV, but not as strong as many others out there, and it pairs wonderfully with myriad treats including chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, apple pie a la mode, cobblers, crème brûlee, and much more."—Rob Hill (Total Wine & More)

"Anchor Porter is the nectar of the gods. Anchor may be better known for their steam beer, but their porter is to die for. It's beloved for its rich malty body plus aromas and flavors of coffee, chocolate, and toasty bread. Roast character and hop bitterness is present but minimal, it's a perfectly balanced brew. This beer definitely has the Anchor "house character." The qualities that make a beer one of the best in the world can be tough to put into words, even in the beer judging world we sometimes cop out and call those qualities "intangibles." Anchor Porter has wonderful intangibles in spades, I can drink this beer all day. Use it in cooking and then pair it with a burger, BBQ, or a brown stew for a potentially transcendent experience."—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)

What are you favorite porters and stouts? Any favorite food pairings for these beers? Tell us in the comments below.

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