They are as dark as molten asphalt and carry a thick head of brown foam. To the unadventurous beer drinker, imperial stouts can seem as treacherous as a highway coated with February slush. But these big bruisers of the beer world offer one of the richest and most rewarding experiences in a pint glass.
Often brewed in small batches during the colder months, they are tailor-made for this time of year, with velvety texture, heart-warming alcohol that typically reaches 9 or 10 per cent and nuances that include dark chocolate, dried dark fruit and smoke.
Like many imperial stout fans, I think of them as winter beers, a loose grouping that also usually includes – depending on whom you ask – Scotch ales, barley wines, double IPAs and dark ales flavoured with fruit, coffee or baking spices. I'd also throw in oatmeal stout, a more modest-alcohol dark brew that derives its exceptional smoothness from oats. If Coors Light were pinot grigio, winter beers would be more like cabernet sauvignon or vintage port.
Imperial stout gets its name from the imperial court of Catherine the Great in Russia, where London brewers of the late 18th century found a thirsty market for an especially robust, hoppy style based on dark-roasted barley malt. A couple of centuries later, craft breweries in North America are making it fashionable among quality-beer hounds on these shores, with more imperial stout produced in the United States than any other country, according to the Oxford Companion to Beer.
One of my new favourites hails from British Columbia, and goes by the arresting name Pothole Filler. Made by Howe Sound Brewing in Squamish, it's a tarry tribute to builders of the local Sea-to-Sky Highway. The roasted barley conveys a strong sense of chocolate, supported by a sweet-bitter tension coming from blackstrap molasses and a high hop content. "We use a whack of roasted malt, crystal malt and molasses," head brewer Franco Corno says. "We wanted it inky black."
I also highly recommend the drier Shipyard Brewing Imperial Porter from Portland, Me., and spicy Russian Gun Imperial Stout from Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, Ont., the latter named for the Queen's Square Cannon gifted to the old town of Galt by Britain to honour local troops who fought in the Crimean War of the 1850s. If you find their heavy alcohol (7.1 and 8 per cent, respectively) intimidating, I'd suggest the superbly balanced, 5-per-cent Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout, a glorious introduction to the dark side.
In a lighter, or at least lighter-coloured, vein, Scotch ale often comes across to me as though it has one toe in the whisky world, which makes it ideal for winter. The style is a nod to an era when brewers heated barley and water over open flames. The resulting caramelized malt added toffee-like sweetness, akin to the flavour imparted to whisky by charred oak barrels.
Some brewers even add peat-smoked malts to the mix, echoing the heady aroma of pungent Islay scotches, such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin. That's the case with the excellent St. Peter's The Saints Whisky Beer, a British rarity that also includes a splash of whisky. "It tastes like it's got a shot of Laphroaig in it," says Chris Harper, owner of the new Toronto hot spot Pharmacy, an antique-wood-lined establishment housed in a former drugstore on a gritty stretch of King Street West that used to do brisk business dispensing methadone to recovering addicts. (The weathered "Pharmacy" sign is the only clue to the new tonics administered within.) "Two supermodels came in and they were drinking bourbon, and I gave them a bottle [of St. Peter's] and they were floored. They were, like, 'This is amazing.'"
Though he received only a tiny allotment of The Saints Whisky Beer, a few of Harper's other seasonally limited offerings include Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout from New York, Mill St. Vanilla Porter from Toronto and Beau's Winterbrewed, an amber ale from Vankleek Hill, Ont., infused with coffee. "I got the vanilla porter in for the girls, but it seems like the guys are into it," he says. "I find it tastes like Toblerone, though not too sweet."
Mirella Amato, who runs a Toronto-based beer-tasting and consulting company called Beerology and was recently named Canada's first Master Cicerone (brewing's analogue to a master sommelier), prefers hearty winter beers on their own. But she says many can pair nicely with cheeses. "Barley wine is a classic with blue cheese," she says of the style named for its near-wine-like high alcoholic strength. Most barley wines are amber-coloured rather than dark and were originally consumed at the table in lieu of their grape-based namesake when the latter grew scarce in England because of periods of tense relations with France.
At Rhino Bar on Toronto's Queen Street West, Chris Starr, a manager, extends his winter-brew definition to include so-called double IPAs, the exceptionally bitter, turbocharged variants of an already bitter style known as India pale ale. He is now featuring 9.5-per-cent-alcohol Rogue I2PA from Oregon as part of the bar's 300-strong beer selection. That number will expand by at least 18 on Feb. 10, when Rhino will host its first annual one-day winter beer festival, featuring an assortment of Ontario craft brands, some brewed specifically for the occasion.
When it comes to spiced brews, Starr, like me, is a fan of Great Lakes Winter Ale (cinnamon, honey, ginger and orange) and Black Oak Nutcracker Porter (cinnamon), both from Ontario. "Another one that's done very well for us is Granville Lions Winter Ale," he says, referring to an offering from Vancouver. "It's got big mocha notes and vanilla."
It's no Pothole Filler, but it can certainly make the glide through winter a little smoother.