How To Brew Imperial Stout | Homebrew Challenge

by Steve Thanos | Last Updated: February 6, 2021

Imperial Stouts possess a wide range of flavor. This big, dark, robust ale has roasty malt with hints of dried fruit and a warming, bittersweet finish to it.

Aiming for harmonious balance between the intense complexity of this beer and the multitude of layers is the real trick when making a good Imperial stout.

The story of this style’s history is as complex as the beer itself.

Peter the Great

As the story goes, Peter the Great was said to have tried his first Imperial stout while visiting England from Czarist Russia in 1698 He fell in love with the style and after he returned home he requested some be sent to his Imperial court.

If this tale is actually true, then Peter the Great was quite revolutionary in his choice in beer.

Porters, as we’ve heard before, carried the word “stout” as a descriptor. The “stout” descriptor was first documented in 1677. So the beer Peter the Great drank may indeed have been a stout, but not as we know it today.

Royalty Beer

Some have speculated that Peter the Great drank a dark high gravity version of a Porter. Some even venture to say that this was the driving force behind exporting darker ales. Nevertheless, the Imperial stout came to be in the late 1700s.

In 1781 Barclay Perkins started to export the highly hopped and higher gravity beers to the Baltic regions. Even the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great enjoyed an Imperial stout and made the bitter cold Russian region just a little warmer in the winter. 

Debunking the Tale

Ron Pattinson from Shut Up about Barclay Perkins blog has quite a few things to say about this story of the origins of this dark beer concoction.

He goes to explain: 

Peter the Great was clearly even greater than we imagined. Because he must have had a time machine to drink London Porter. He visited England in 1689. The first Porter was brewed several decades later, around 1720. He died in 1725, when Porter was still barely known, even in London. God, these extra hops and extra strength for the long voyage stories.

Did the writer look at a map? Standard Porter was regularly shipped to the American colonies, a journey more than double that to St. Petersburg. And in the 19th century normal strength Porter was shipped all the way to India.

Why was Russian Stout so strong? Because it was made for the rich pissheads of the Russian court.

So no matter which story is true, the history of the Imperial stout is as fascinating as the beer itself. Brewing a good Imperial stout is so much more than some kitchen sink beer that one throws together.

It is about a careful hand with the specialty malts so as to not create a murky mess that leaves the drinker disappointed. Also, a heavy hand with the hops to allow the bitterness to cut through the overly sweet malt.

Overall, the Imperial stout should be thick and viscous with a complex yet balanced and harmonious approach that allows the flavors of the malt and the bitterness of the hops to play nicely with each other.

Style Profile for Imperial Stout

Appearance

The color of an Imperial stout ranges from dark, deep reddish brown to pure black with a little color on the edges in good lighting. It is opaque with a mocha colored head that is pretty low. The thickness of the beer and the high abv, leaves legs on the glass when the beer is swirled. 

Aroma

The aroma is often perceived as varied and complex. Roast, maltiness, alcohol, hops, and esters all find a way in the aroma. The malt aroma is often toward the specialty malt. Esters are present and take on a dark fruit character such as raisins, prunes, or plums.

Also notes of coffee, dark chocolate are common. A warming bit from the alcohol is common as well. Hop aroma can be from low to strong. Beer’s aroma can change with age.   

Taste

The taste of an Imperial stout can be intense, complex, and rich. Roatiness, maltiness, and hop bitterness/flavor, and fruit esters are all present in the taste. The roasted grains may be bittersweet chocolate and/or coffee. Much like a barleywine, the toast and caramel are present. The finish can be dry to moderately sweet. 

Mouthfeel

The beer’s body can be very full, smooth, and chewy. The body should never be syrupy or sweet. A smooth warming sensation from the alcohol can add to the overall mouthfeel of the beer. Low to moderate carbonation. Long conditioning times can decrease the body and carbonation of the beer. 

Food Pairing

When it comes to pairing an American stout with food, roasted foods, smoked foods, barbecued/grilled foods are all a great start.

Salty foods, oysters, rich stews, braised dishes all work well too. Chocolate desserts are always a good pairing when it comes to stouts. 

Tips for Brewing your own Imperial Stout

Grain

The grain bill for a good Imperial Stout is very important. A grain bill ranging from 17.5 to 20 pounds is very common for even a 5 gallon batch. To start a high quality 2-Row pale base malt or Maris Otter for more complexity.

Specialty malts such as: higher lovibond Caramel/Crystal malts,Chocolate malt, Coffee malt, Black Patent, Roasted Barley, Special B, Midnight Wheat, Chocolate Rye, Rye malt (for added complexity) can all be considered when formulating a recipe. 

Hops

The hops are not to stand out in this beer, but they do need to be present to cut through some of the malty sweetness from a grain bill reaching nearly 20 pounds for a 5 gallon batch.

Good choices for the style include: Magnum, Northern Brewer, and East Kent Goldings. The bulk of the hops will be added at bittering with only the remaining hops in the hop schedule left for late in the boil.

Yeast

Many different strains of yeast will work well for an Imperial stout. Personally, I’ve had great luck with Imperial Yeast’s Darkness and White Labs San Diego WLP090. Some things to consider would be to oxygenate the wort prior to pitching and making a yeast starter. 

Imperial Stout the By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 30 – 40 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.075 – 1.115 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.018 – 1.039 FG
  • IBU Range: 50 – 90
  • ABV Range: 8.0 – 12.0%

Martin Keen’s Imperial Stout Recipe  (2.5 gallon batch)

Grain

78 %          14 lbs        Maris Otter    

11 %           2 lb           Crystal 45  

  3 %           8 oz          Flaked Barley

  3%            8 oz          Roasted Barley

  3 %           8 oz          Special B

  1 %           4 oz          Black Patent 

  1 %           4 oz          Chocolate Malt

Hops

2.00 oz         Magnum – Boil 60 min

1.00 oz         East Kent Golding – Boil   10 min

Yeast

1.0 pkg   London Ale Wyeast 1028

Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins

Boil for 60 mins 

Transcript: It’s Russian Imperial stout day. And I’m going to brew this in my redesigned brewery. I’ll give you a tour.

Martin keen on taking the Homebrew challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. And this is my rearranged brewery where I have cameras everywhere.

Today’s beer is a Russian Imperial stout, uh, technically in 2015, the BJCP guidelines renamed the Russian Imperial stout to just Imperial stout, whatever it’s a Russian Imperial stout, as far as I’m concerned. And let’s head over now and talk about ingredients.

Now Russian Imperial stout. It’s a pretty big beer. I’m shooting for an original gravity of 10 82. So around 8.5% ABV, that’s pretty strong. But actually in terms of the style, it’s kind of on the low end, you can brew this all the way up to 12% and stay within the style guidelines.

In terms of the grist I’m using Maris Otter as my base malt, and that will make up 78% of the grist. And I’m also adding in 11% of crystal 45. Now Imperial stout should be a fairly complex beer. So you’re going to want to use a good number of dark roasted malts in this barley. So I’m using 3% each of roasted barley, flaked barley, and special B. And then I’m also going to add in two more dark roasted malts as well. So 1% each of chocolate malt and patent malt.

Now I’m only brewing a two and a half gallon batch, but there’s still a lot of grain in this thing. So first things first, let’s get some water in here.

I’m using 4.2 gallons from my half size batch. So let’s now get this heated up. And now it’s maybe a good time just to tell you about some of the changes that I’ve made to my brewery.

Now I wanted to address that, the primary thing I wanted to address was the fact that when I’m talking to you on camera, the brewing equipment was always behind me. So it sort of awkwardly be going lala lala off of to the camera there. And then I had the stuff behind my back. Now I can actually face the camera and brew. So this is awesome.

Um, the, the other thing I wanted to point out in case you’re wondering what the heck saints and devils brewery is. That’s my fake brewery name. When I first started out doing all grain brewing in 2016, then, uh, that’s uh, my buddy and I, we came up with that name, the saints and the devils refer to premier league soccer teams.

So I’m using this six foot long stainless steel table as my brew table. And this comfortably fits everything that I need on it. I do have a second table over in the corner there. Um, but that’s for some improvements, which are coming a little bit further down the line.

I’ve got some heavy duty storage bins where I keep most of the brew supplies that I need during brew day. Whereas before I had those on some shelves across the other side of the basement. So the idea being here that I have everything on hand too, I can quickly and easily brew something up.

Now, there is one other quite significant change, and that’s related to this, my hood extractor vent. I have made some pretty big changes to this that I hope will mean that I no longer have dripping wort coming down during the boil, but I’m going to get to that in a little bit.

We’re at 166 Fahrenheit now, which is my mash in temperature. So we’re going to turn everything off and I’m going to put my grain basket in the kettle.

And then I have also got a little bit of water salts that I’m using here. So I’ve got two grams here of, um, of gypsum, three grams of Epson, salt, and five grams of calcium chloride. And that’s hopefully also get me in around the pH level I need to be, although I’ll be checking that in a moment, but let’s put that in.

We’re going to now mash at 152 Fahrenheit, 67 Celsius for about an hour.

Mashing for 19 minutes and mashing out 168 Fahrenheit. I’m going to turn that off. You ready to see me pull this green basket out in super slow-mo?

Bringing this up to a boil now and let’s talk a little bit about hops. A big beer like this can certainly handle a good amount of hops. You want to look at using high alpha acid hops of some variety I’m using for my bittering hop Magnum. And in a, in a five gallon batch, I would add in two ounces of Magnum, which is going to get to about 70 IBU . That sounds a huge amount. That sounds like you’re brewing like a double IPA or something, but it’s not going to be a beer that’s going to be especially bitter given the strength of it.

So 60 minutes Magnum goes in. Then I am also adding in a flavor and aroma hop with 10 minutes to go. That is East Kent Golding. This will contribute five or six IBU. I’m going to add that 10 minutes from end of the boil.

While we are boiling, now’s a great time to talk about this thing. I’m so excited about the potential for this. Now I have had this hood for a very long time, and I’ve had all sorts of condensation issues with it where during the boil, the steam gets into the hood and it’s dripping back down into the bit it’s gross. I tried all sorts of things.

Now, the first thing that seemed obvious is to get rid of these grills. So these sit in this hood itself, um, and they were dripping down and know just the fact that they’re metal and the steam was touching this and condensating and dripping back. Wasn’t good.

So I tried removing them, but the trouble was then all the ended up happening was that the steam would just condense on the next thing that was metal in there that it hit.

So we were just hit here on this fan, just along this bottom bit here and drip down. And actually these grates were kind of helping because the drips would go into the grates and they wouldn’t go straight all the way down into the kettle, uh, at least buy you a little bit of time to, to drain them.

So I’ve clearly done something else now, which is to take all of this stuff out and all that’s left in here. Now it’s just a gutted hood. So there’s no extractor fan in here, uh, of any sort, what I’ve done instead is to add an inline fan. And I did that at the exit to this duct work here.

So now what happens is the steam gets sucked up into this hood where it travels along the ductwork, and it’s been sucked in by that fan that’s at the end of the duct work and then pushed on outside of the house.

So having this big separation between the fan mechanism itself and the hood I’m hoping will mean that I’m not going to see drips back in here, but there’s really only one way to find out. And I’m about to find out.

I am going to use London Ale Yeast. That’s wyeast 1028 for this beer. There’s a lot of sugars here for this yeast to chew through.

So if you are brewing a five gallon on 19 liter batch, you might want to consider either buying a second packet of these or making a yeast starter, to really make sure that the yeast is healthy as it munches its way through what are the sugars.

And the original gravity for this beer ended up coming in at 10 80. So pretty close to target. So that is it for brew day.

What do you think of this new setup? I’m really liking it, especially the hood here. I just let’s say, could do with some ideas for what to do with this bare concrete wall.

Okay. Russian Imperial stout time. You told me just before the, uh, the tasting here, you’ve never had a Russian Imperial stout? I know. I don’t think I have, I can’t wait for you to try this one. Okay.

So what do you think, what do you think? Um, it is very, very dark. Like I can’t see through that at all. Yeah. When you were pouring it, you said it was quite thick, thick. Yeah. Quite, quite thick looking well.

Let’s see what we get with the aroma for this beer? Um, expect to get quite a, uh, roasty aroma. And I think that’s what I’m getting. How about you? It’s quite strong roast on that smells. Hm. Yeah. It smells roasty. Yeah, really? Like for me, a really inviting deep roasty smell. It smells very wintery. Yeah. It makes sense. It does. It really does. I smell this and I really, it makes me look forward to tasting it. So without further ado, do you want to drink this one? Because it has more heads so you can get all of it.

Okay. I mean, I’m nervous. I’d rather have less head on this one. No, whatever. Oh my goodness. That’s strong. Yeah. Yes it is. Woo. Oh. It’s like, I feel warm. Like going, going down kind of tastes like chocolate. Yeah. There’s, there’s, there’s a little bit of, uh, uh, chocolate taste for sure. Uh, maybe dark chocolate, dark chocolate and coffee. Yep. Tastes like to me, this is a sit by the fire one. I think sit by the fire.

Oh, this makes me think of ski trips and yeah. Just, just call it. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And then coming in and then warming up with a delicious glass of russian imperial stout.

So as usual you want to brew this, I recommend it. Um, description has everything that you need. Uh, the ingredients are there. Plus the, uh, the, the kit from Atlantic brew supply. If you want to just pick up the, the kit of all the ingredients and, uh, well, next week we start a whole new category of beers and it just might be a category that you’ve mentioned the time or two before. Hmm. Mm.

So until then, cheers. Cheers.

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.