Among the macho style of beers--doppelbocks, stong ales, barleywines--perhaps the greatest (mucho macho?) is the imperial stout. This is partly due to its strength and profile (huge, oily, black), but also its history: as early as the late 1700s, British brewers were shipping it throughout the Baltic region and as far as Tsarist Russia, from whence came the name, Russian Imperial Stout.
Original gravities range from 1.075 and go up past 11, with alcohol from 9% and up. When you brew an imperial stout, you throw about everything you can think of in it, including more hops than even extreme hopheads think is a good idea--to balance the malt, you need electric amounts of alpha acids. For me, the most characteristic quality in a good imperial is the narcotic effect it gives, a warmth that radiates right into the hypothalmus. It induces a sense of wellbeing and an insensitivity to chill winds.
Based on my informal glances in pubs across Portland, Beervanians drink a lot of stout, and this is supported by my (highly scientific) sample of friends and acquantances--a few of whom only drink dark ales. So I was both interested and not particularly hopeful when I picked up a bottle of Victory Brewing's Storm King. Fantastic name, but what could a Pennsylvania brewery hope to offer a dark-hearted Webfoot?
The information about Storm King is scant (malt: "2-row barley," hops: "American"), but there seems to be something special in the beer. It pours out like motor oil and from its viscous surface rises the aroma of peat. It's a smoky, earthy smell, and I wondered if the brewery somehow managed to peat-smoke some malt.
I was shocked to discover that the lovely aroma actually understated the complexity of Storm King. It's the kind of beer you could swirl around in your mouth for five minutes just to suss out the different elements. Its central characteristic is a deep bitterness, at times like coffee or very dark chocolate, but other times like a nice scotch. That's the impression I finally took away from this beer, too--it had the kind of satisfying intensity of a peaty Islay malt. It was one of the most extraordinary beers I've had recently. I have generally considered Rasputin to be the standard of imperial stouts, but I'm afraid we have a new contender.
I'd love to see an Oregon brewer consider this Pennsylvania gauntlet and see if it can be matched.
Hops: "American whole flower"
Malts: Two-row pale and ... ?
Alcohol by Volume: 9.1%
Original Gravity: Unknown
Bitterness Units: Unkown.
Available: Belmont Station.