Comparing Imperial Stouts

On this day in 1916, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, a Russian mystic who entranced the czar's wife, was assassinated by aristocrats wary of his growing influence. It's an intriguing tale and a fitting historical excuse to sample Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, an offering from North Coast Brewing Co. We also thought we'd try a second version, Victory Brewing Company's Storm King Imperial Stout.

Imperial stouts originated in the 17th century, according to an article in the Washington Post, when Peter the Great opened Russia to the west and travelers returned to England with tales of the Russians' taste for alcohol. By the end of the century, London brewers were exporting to the court of Catherine The Great, aiming their stouts at vodka fans, with high levels of hops and alcohol (the latter made necessary by the frigid ship voyage, when beers with less booze would freeze).

For the record, both sampled here have about 9 percent alcohol by volume. Let's see how these heavyweights square off.

We hadn't sampled anything from Pennsylvania-based Victory before, possibly because the packaging is a bit hokey. Unfortunately, the beer is just as ham-fisted. If you're lucky, some sips show layers of coffee, even a mocha flavor. Most others, however, leave you with an oppressively bitter aftertaste, like a burnt IPA. Those into pale ales might enjoy this offering, but it's not our favorite. You can find the chocolate malt if you look for it, but you'll need a flashlight. The beer improves as it warms up, but the charcoal taste remains. Of course, imperials are supposed to taste as imposing as they sound. But they can do so without leaving a nasty aftertaste.

Cue the Rasputin.

This, in our opinion, is precisely what an imperial should be. It's thicker and smoother than the Victory, but not syrupy. The aroma is warm, full, like a good cup of coffee. As you drink the Rasputin, it feels sweet at the front of the mouth and then seems to activate each row of taste buds all the way along the tongue.

The flavors come in layers. Sweet initially, the beer swallows bitter, then the malt -- still tinged with hops -- spreads evenly back through the mouth. It's so powerful you can smell it in your nose as you swallow, but the aftertaste is warm, pleasant.

You can find both at Spec's. Or you can try out the new beer-finding Web site we wrote about recently.

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Mike Morris
Contact: Mike Morris