I’ve never understood sessionables. Why slug six cans when you can sip on two? Why go an insipid 4% ABV when you can dial the alcohol, gravity and everything up to 11?
That’s why I fell for imperial stout. It’s a big beer. I’d call it a gateway drug – except to what? Bat’s blood?
Because really, how much heavier can a beer get? Like Motörhead and Slayer – and, incidentally, a lot of the artwork on imperial stout labels – imperial stout is a style without restraint. It’s dialled up to the red: as massive as a Tony Iommi guitar riff.
Imperial stout pushes the boundaries of what malt (rhythm section), hops (lead guitar and vocals) and yeast (amplifiers) can do. It’s a high-gravity brew, requiring loads of pale malts to feed the yeast and push those little Vegemites through their alcoholic fug.
And there’s the rub. All that pale malt makes the wort resemble a Gold Coast apartment during Schoolies Week: a pungent morass of sugar drink. So to balance the sweetness of the pale malts, the brewer must pitch in loads of bittering agents: dark malts and hops. Let yeast and time do their work and voila! Let there be Rock.
Imperial stout drinkers are dedicated fans. The metalheads of the beer world. In the US, imperial stout launches attract thousands of devotees. “Whalez bros”, they’re called. As in “I’m hunting whales, bro”. (A “whale” is a massive, exceptional and elusive beer. From Moby Dick, the famous Led Zeppelin song.)
If you ever find yourself in the States and you can purchase a ticket to 3 Floyds Brewing’s Dark Lord Day, Surly Brewing’s Darkness Day, or a launch of Deschutes’ Abyss, Cigar City’s Hunahpu or Perennial’s Abraxis, then you’ve scored a beer trader’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. You’re Charlie fucking Bucket, dude.
Dark Lord Day, in May, hosted by Indiana-based brewery 3 Floyds, is arguably the biggest event on the global imperial stout calendar. Metal bands, black t-shirts, vomiting. It’s what Oktoberfest would look like if Slipknot were the artistic directors.
Here in Australia, we swim in a smaller pond. That doesn’t stop local brewers dreaming they can break big, like AC/DC. But as everyone knows, it’s a long way to the top…
So let’s see if we can give some of these would-be whales a leg-up.
First up we have Feral Brewing’s Boris Russian Imperial Stout. At a mere 9.1% ABV, this wouldn’t even have been classified as beer in Russia a few years ago. Features a very ’80s parody of Soviet agitprop on the label, recalling Reagan, Glasnost and I want my MTV. Toffee nose, roasty, slightly caramel taste. Smooth and reliable, like a session guitarist. The best thing this imperial stout has going for it is its ubiquity and radio friendliness.
Score: 7/10. Who’s in the mosh pit? A Bon Jovi groupie.
Next up we have Colonial Brewing’s Colonial Inquest. 11.7% ABV. This one comes in a matte-black can with elegant gold type, which is kind of nu metal and kind of very Australian at the same time. Innovative. And then the whole lid peels off! Excitement mounts. We’re dreaming of winged keels and stump-jump ploughs. And then liquorice, dark fruit … and, oh, kind of thin and boozy. But hey! Great at the price.
Score: 6½/10. Who’s in the mosh pit? A keyboardist.
Now we come to the crowd favourite. Winner of the 2017 GABS People’s Choice Award, Stockade’s Mountie Maple Imperial Stout. A big, bad 12% ABV. And what a label! That Birth of Venus parody. Homoerotic, like Judas Priest but with a sense of humour. Pack your insulin though, because the maple syrup is taking no prisoners. It’s an eight-stack of pancakes in a bottle.
Score: 7/10. Who’s in the mosh pit? That big guy with the board shorts and a Sepultura t-shirt.
From over the ditch comes a product of the mighty Kiwi craft beer industry, 8 Wired’s iStout. Is it any good? No. It’s spectacular! Creamy sweet but not cloying, balanced by roast malt and bitter chocolate. And those hops. That fruity aroma and finish: pineapple and mango. Imagine David Lee Roth in a Carmen Miranda hat hitting a top note over the Mongolian Throat Singers Choir. It’s a surprise package, to say the least.
Score: 9/10. Who’s in the mosh pit? The sun-kissed surfer bank manager from Dromana in the sleeveless denim jacket with Iron Maiden patches.
The most ass-kicking imperial stout in Australia, and the most likely to earn whale status, is Boatrocker’s Ramjet. ABV 10.2%. Aged in a whisky barrel, this is a boilermaker in a bottle. Syrupy, boozy, black as pitch with complex vanilla and chocolate notes. It’s doomy, deep and dark: the Celtic Frost of Aussie imperial stouts.
Score: 8½/10. Who’s in the mosh pit? An older guy who wandered in from the front bar, who hasn’t decided yet whether to start a fight or to chat up a girl.
Now, I may be doing you no favours by awarding joint winner status to gypsy brewer Edge Brewing Project’s Stagger Lee. ABV 10%. It’s hard to find, but seek it out you must. It’s full and thick, and black as the midnight sun. How it hangs together is anyone’s guess. It holds a massive 90 IBUs of bitter hops, yet these are somehow balanced with a huge, roasty grain bill, wattle seed and toasted coconut. It shouldn’t all fit into one bottle, but it does. Just. Stagger Lee, incidentally, is named after a Nick Cave murder ballad, a song with lyrics that even Slayer wouldn’t countenance.
Score: 9/10. Who’s in the mosh pit? A lean, hirsute hombre in leathers and a black Stetson.