Imperial Stout – Great Divide’s Classic Version

Having written recently of a Trappist ale and a mass-market adjunct lager, I thought I’d flip to what craft was all about: Yeti Imperial Stout, from Great Divide in Denver, one of the gestational areas for craft beer.

The brewery was founded in 1994, when the competition was much lesser than today. It still shines, due to the quality of the beers. It is still independent and operated by the founder Brian Dunn.

This is the original Yeti Imperial Stout – no barrel aging or chip treatment, and superior for it, IMO. I’ve had a barrel-aged version of Yeti, also one that used toasted oak chips to impart a barrel character. If I recall correctly there was also a Belgian yeast version, I had that too.

The “plain vanilla” (sorry!) is superior to these others IMO in that the malt character is at its purest: no bourbony, quasi-oxidized background notes. In 1995, Courage Imperial Russian Stout was still available if you looked in the U.K.

I’d guess Dunn had tasted it because his original Impy stout is rather similar, down to the estery note, often obscured in barrel-aged beers.

This is what real beer is all about, and the bruited 75 IBU blends seamlessly with the luxurious, pillowy dark malts. Early taste notes online stress an American, piney accent. This current bottling, from only Nov. 2, 2017, employs to my taste a more neutral hopping, closer again to the Courage IRS model as it was “back then” anyway.

This type of Imperial stout, or rather stout as Imperial stout is simply a very strong porter, expresses the true flavour of 19th century porter and stout.

How do I know that? Because it reminds me of the pre-craft Sinebrychoff stout of Finland, and Carnegie stout of Sweden, both classics distantly related to 1700s London porter. Ditto for a number of historical recreations of stout including the amazing Fuller Double Stout of some years ago.

Even Sinha (Lion) stout from Sri Lanka, descended from a Victorian-era stout made for British planters and traders in Ceylon, shows this richness of character. The roast is there in all these but well-integrated in the palate, it doesn’t stand on top so to speak as if disconnected from the beer. It also doesn’t come across as an Italian expresso-type taste.

And needless to say, there is no flavouring of chocolate or coffee added. Yeti’s is probably all-malt but possibly small amounts of roast grains (unmalted) are used, mashing details are not disclosed by the brewery.

The only drawback is the strength, almost 10% abv.  Well, not a drawback, but in other words it would be good to have the same taste in 5% abv say. In fact, Dunn thought of that too, he has a 5% abv nitro version in Denver, see details here.

The acrid, very dry, often Irish-style porters and stouts frequently encountered in craft brewing are IMO rather distant from 1800s porter flavour. In that time, to be sure some porter was well-aged, sometimes as part of a blend, and therefore dryish in taste; also, wood-smoked brown malt played a role in much porter then, so one can presume some porter had a pronounced burnt edge.

But I doubt the typical Irish-style stout of today, even where all-malt, resembled those: to me it descends more from the modern Guinness recipe including its use of unmalted barley. A good example from Ireland itself is O’Hara stout which you can get on draft here in some pubs. Superior to Guinness, perhaps, but I doubt it really gets at 19th porter.

Now you may say, the 1800s brewers used wood in their process including for casks, so their beer must have had a somewhat oxidized note. Yes and no, as British barrelage and vats then did not use American oak which imparts a distinctive, coconut, vanillin character.

The wood used at least in England and Scotland – the case for Ireland is not 100% clear based on the historical record – was mostly East European oak, a variety prized for its neutral effect on the beer. It could never be 100% neutral, but was quite different by all reports from the effect of American oak on the beer.

Of course some people like modern barrel-aged stout, some people like medium-strength stout of the dry acerbic style, quite a lot, it seems.

As I always say, if people like any taste in beer, that’s good, for them and the beer business. Here, I simply explain my own tastes.