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For the past two years, I've trekked out to Southampton, Long Island on the last Friday of January so the next morning I could stand in line for a few predawn hours in the freezing cold. That Saturday is the one day of the year year that brewmaster Phil Markowski and his crew at the Southampton Publick House release their decadent Russian imperial stout. This year they released a total of 650 bottles of beautiful beer, and a horde of beer geeks were ready outside to snap up every last bottle.
Southampton is far from alone in this. If you want to try Black Tuesday, Kate the Great, Sexual Chocolate, Dark Lord, Surly Darkness, or a number of other great "cult" imperial stouts, you should probably prepare yourself for the possibility of standing in line on release day, trolling Internet forums looking for trades, buying lottery tickets in hopes of winning a chance to buy a bottle, or paying incredibly inflated prices on eBay.
And don't get me wrong—release days are a great time. There are usually other rarities available and plenty of good folks to hang out with and share beers. But what if you prefer to sleep in and pick up a six-pack or bomber at a grocery store or bottle shop without any hassle or fuss? Rest assured, there are plenty of top-tier imperial stouts available that require a lot less hoop-jumping to snag a bottle. Here are 10 solid choices that you can find on your own schedule. Some are seasonal, some are limited, but most of them see a fairly wide distribution—you should be able to track down these delicious imperial stouts without too much trouble.
Note: I skipped stouts with coffee, chocolate, vanilla beans, for this roundup—we can get into those later.
Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout
This winter seasonal is big on chocolate syrup in the aroma, along with bready malts and a moderate roast. Black Chocolate Stout (10.0% ABV) is a real mouthful, chewy and rich with loads of roasted malt flavor, dark chocolate, char, and some blackstrap molasses. It's great with a stinky blue cheese or for making beer ice cream.
Great Divide Brewing Co. Yeti Imperial Stout
Great Divide has a number of variations on the Yeti (9.5% ABV), but I'm a sucker for the original. Powerful roasty aromas lead chocolate and caramel malt in this thick, deep brown brew. The chocolate and roast intensify in the flavor along with some toffee and the hops' grapefruit and pine. It's not the bitterest of the bunch, but it's one of the hoppiest.
Victory Brewing Co. Storm King Imperial Stout
A big blast of citrusy and spicy hops open to dark espresso roast with a milder aroma of cocoa. The color is a deep, opaque coffee with a thin but persistent light tan head. The first sip of Storm King (9.1% ABV) is a bitter, unrelenting hop rush that runs long into the finish. Substantial roasted grain add to the bitterness and molasses follows. There's a bit of warming alcohol on the end. This is a bitter, bitter beer.
Two Brothers Brewing Co. Northwind Imperial Stout
Northwind's rich, dark chocolate aroma is complemented by raisins, dark fruit, and a touch of smoke. The first sip brings big, dark malts, and more smokiness. Sweet, creamy chocolate emerges midpalate before a comparatively restrained hop character, roasted grain and burnt sugar come in the finish. Full-bodied and slightly oily, Northwind (9.1% ABV) is a flavorful but comparatively mellow imperial stout. Check it out if bitter isn't your thing.
Goose Island Beer Co. Bourbon County Stout 2011
Just because BCS isn't a "release day only" beer doesn't mean it'll be easy to get your hands on a bottle. It'll barely get warm on the shelves, let alone have a chance to gather dust. This year's batch (14.5% ABV) smells of toasted oak, cocoa powder, vanilla, and whiskey. It's velvety and heavy on the tongue. The flavor is intense with chocolate, barrel, maple, a bit of soy sauce and a rush of alcohol. There's no doubt about the beer's strength, but it wears it well. Lay some down if you can find it, this will get better for some time.
Boulevard Brewing Co. Dark Truth Stout
A Belgian yeast strain takes Dark Truth (9.7% ABV) in a somewhat different direction, at times almost more like a Belgian dark strong ale with a bit of roasted grain and more pronounced bitterness. No complaints here. There's a lot of plum in the aroma, along with fig, dark sugar, cocoa, and a mild smokiness. The dark fruit carries over in flavor, accompanied by sweet milk chocolate, spicy rye, and warming alcohol. It's very creamy, with a fairly dry finish.
Stone Brewing Co. Imperial Russian Stout 2011
Moderate roasted grain and coffee aromas mix with bready malts and faint hops. Stone's Imperial Russian Stout (10.5% ABV) is thick and tastes of chocolate and burnt sugar, complemented by dark fruit with a little licorice and citrus hops. This bottle, tasted almost nine months after its release, has smoothed out and shows refinement through its tingling endnote of bitterness and alcohol.
Schlafly Bourbon-Barrel Aged Imperial Stout 2011
This is a stout for whiskey lovers, with silky malt awash in bourbon. Schlafly Imperial Stout (10.5% ABV) is seriously boozy, but not hot. Hop character and roast really don't have much of a place here, but there's enough bitterness to balance even the sweeter malt midway through. Cinnamon and clove provide a spicy note to close. This is my wife's key ingredient for a stellar vanilla ice cream stout float.
North Coast Brewing Co. Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
Aromas of milk chocolate and char are accented by bread crust and dulce de leche. Espresso and licorice meld with more chocolate at first sip. Rich and delicious, Old Rasputin (9.0% ABV) starts off deceptively, almost too easy-drinking despite its complexity and heft, before revealing its warming alcohol and bitter roast, which ripple on in the finish.
Oskar Blues Brewery Ten Fidy Imperial Stout
The look and feel of motor oil are the first clues that Ten Fidy (10.5% ABV) isn't a beer to be taken lightly. Chocolate, caramel, and dark roast coffee aromas rise from the glass in waves. Mouthcoating chocolate, caramel and creamy oats provide a solid foundation underneath a substantial load of dark char, roasted grain, and hop bitterness. There's a second wave of alcohol-tinged dark fruit before returning to the roast in a seemingly endless finish. This one's heavy duty.
Are you game for beer release days? Or do you buy the best imperial stout your local bottle shop stocks? What are your favorite imperial stouts?
Goose Island, Great Divide, Stone, Boulevard, Schlafly, and North Coast provided samples for review.