It’s easy to think of Asheville as an IPA town. Every local brewery makes one and it’s probably the fastest selling beer for just about all of them. So when CNN’s Nathan Berrong listed two Asheville beers (OK, one is a soon-to-be Asheville-area beer) to his “Best Beers of 2012” list, you would think they were IPAs.
Yet it was Wedge’s Vadim Bora and Sierra Nevada’s Narwhal that made the cut. Both are Russian Imperial Stouts.
Like India Pale Ale — a beer that was named for an oceanic journey it no longer takes — Russian Imperial Stout is named for where it used to travel. The style originated in England, where it was brewed for export to Russia and the Baltic states. And as with IPA, American Brewers have taken the British style and revived it in a big way. Review any “best of” list and you’ll find a disproportionate number. Of the top 15 beers in the world on Ratebeer.com, there are 11 Russian Imperial Stouts (all made in America).
Why do people love it? “It’s not only delicious, it’s the epitome of a seasonal drink,” said Craig Weitzel, a maltster at Riverbend Malt House and beerlanthropist at Bruisin’ Ales. “It goes perfectly with a cold night. It’s the winter equivalent of a Blonde Ale on a summer afternoon.”
It’s also a big beer where brewers let their creativity shine. The roasted malt can have aromas of coffee, chocolate, burnt toast or licorice. The yeast can add a punch of fruity esters, or none at all. It can have almost no hop aroma, or it can be aggressively hopped. Trying two Russian Imperial Stouts next to each other, it’s safe to say they will be intense, full-bodied and roasty. But beyond that, you could have two very different beers.
“It’s a very diverse style. Brewers take it in a lot of directions,” said Weitzel. “You have classic versions, like Narwhal. You have hoppy versions, like Sweetwater’s Happy Ending. ... It’s also a kitchen sink beer for brewers. They can add all sorts of malts and other ingredients. You have beers like Terrapin’s Wake ‘N’ Bake, which features oatmeal and coffee. Epic’s Big Bad Baptist has coffee, chocolate and is aged in bourbon barrels. And of course there’s Sexual Chocolate.”
Ah yes, Foothills Brewing’s Sexual Chocolate. It has become one of the most sought-after beers in the state. It has also snagged national awards: three Great American Beer Fest medals and a World Beer Cup Silver in 2010. According to Foothills brewer Dave Gonzalez, who has been brewing Sexual Chocolate since 2006, “It was the brainchild of our president/brewmaster Jamie Bartholomaus. He brewed it as a Valentine's Day beer in college. Then he continued [to brew it] when he opened Foothills. The first year it was draft only, but so many of our customers kept asking for it in bottles we decided to bottle it.”
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This year, fans camped out at 10 p.m. waiting for the the 10 a.m. release of the bottles. The beer sold out in just two hours.
“It’s a very time consuming process and a very expensive beer for us to make (it takes more ingredients, tank space, time, labor, etc.). That's why we only do it once a year, and why it’s only available for only such a short amount of time. But I think that’s one reason why people like it so much. ... Also, and more importantly, it's a good beer.” said Gonzales.
If you missed this year’s Sexual Chocolate bottle release, don’t despair. It will be on tap here and there around Asheville in the coming weeks. The Junction recently featured it at a beer dinner, and Pisgah recently featured it on tap. And there’s plenty of great local Russian Imperial Stouts to try in the meantime.