BarrelArt of Craft ~
brews and reviews

By Greg Richardson

It is February!

February is the shortest month of the year. It is Black History Month, the month of Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day, and now the month of the Super Bowl. This year, as every four years, February is the month of the Winter Olympics, this time in Sochi, Russia.

An excellent Art of the Craft way to salute and enjoy all of these February traits this year is with a great Russian Imperial Stout.

I prefer to swim in the dark end of the craft brewing pool. Porters and stouts are my preferred brews of choice.

The earliest known use of the word stout to describe a strong beer was in 1677.

The name porter was first used in London in 1721 to describe a dark brown beer made with roasted malts. Porter had a string, distinctive flavor, tended to be less expensive than other beers, and was not easily affected by heat. The beer was very popular with porters, who were employed carrying luggage.

Because of the beer’s popularity, brewers developed porters in a variety of strengths.

Stout is traditionally a generic term for the strongest porter produced by a brewery. Stouts are typically 7% or 8% alcohol by volume (ABV).

The best known stout today is brewed by Guinness, of Dublin, Ireland.

There are several varieties of stout.

Milk stouts, also known as cream stouts or sweet stouts, contain lactose, which is not fermentable by beer yeast. The lactose adds sweetness and calories to the finished beer. Milk stout was claimed to be nutritious, and was given to nursing mothers. After the Second World War, when milk was rationed in Britain, the British government required brewers to remove the word “milk” from their labels and advertising.

Oatmeal stouts are stouts to which oats, often around 30%, are added during the brewing process. Oats were commonly used in ales in medieval Europe, and tended to make beer taste bitter. The practice had mainly died out until the 19th century, when the supposedly restorative qualities of oatmeal attracted attention.

Oatmeal stouts in the 20th century contained only a minimal amount of oats. For some brewers, the only difference between the stouts and the oatmeal stouts they produced were the packaging.

Contemporary oatmeal stouts do not generally taste of oatmeal. They tend to be smoother and have more body than regular stouts.

Some oyster stouts are brewed using oysters in the brewing process. Other brewers use the name to suggest that their beer is an excellent companion to eating oysters.

Many craft breweries also produce chocolate stouts, coffee stouts, and chipotle stouts by including ingredients in the brewing process. There are plenty of opportunities for enjoyable exploration.

Russian Imperial Stout is a very strong dark beer that was first brewed in 18th century London for export to the court of Catherine II of Russia. It is usually over 9% alcohol by volume(ABV).

The story is that Peter the Great developed a taste for the porters and stouts he discovered in England. Unfortunately, the beers went bad on the long trip from England to Russia. One London brewery added hops to its porter and increased the alcohol content to allow the beer to survive the journey. The hops acted as a preservative and added to the beer’s flavor.

It is also said that Catherine the Great, like so many women of excellent taste, appreciated a good, strong Russian Imperial stout, and shared pints with her court.

Russian Imperial stouts get a lot of attention from craft brewers and craft beer drinkers. Their strong flavors and serious alcohol content give brewers plenty of room for creativity. They are also excellent beers for barrel aging, which allows the flavors from the barrels to mellow and soften the strong tastes in the beer.

Russian Imperial Stout may be the perfect beer for February. It helps me survive long, dark winter nights. It has the complex, rewarding combination of flavors that celebrate all of the February holidays. It even pays tribute to the hosts of the Winter Olympics. 

The Winter Olympics only come around every four years. Settle in with a great Russian Imperial Stout and watch an evening of curling. Enjoy!

Greg Richardson is a leadership and organizational coach, and a spiritual life mentor, in Pasadena, California. He is passionate about craft brewing, listening, and monks and monastic life. Greg is a recovering attorney, executive, and university professor. Greg’s website is and he is on Twitter @StrategicMonk. You can email Greg at

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