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Is Bigger Better? The Joys of Barley Wines & Russian Imperial Stouts

When you first pour a beer, you may initially notice the colour and aroma. Upon tasting, the many nuances of flavour will come into play. Except in rare cases, alcohol content isn’t really a consideration. Alcohol by volume (ABV) is calculated from a formula that involves original and final gravities. Original gravity (OG) represents the amount of sugars present in the wort measured as a relative density compared to water, which has a specific gravity of 1.000. Most beers begin with an original gravity of 1.030 to 1.070 with certain beers exceeding 1.100. These beers are called “big” because their body, mouthfeel, and flavour are much more prominent than “regular” beers. Barleywine (or Barley Wine) and Russian Imperial Stout (or simply Imperial Stout) are two varieties that define this group. While born a couple of hundred years ago in Great Britain, they have recently become popular within the craft beer community.

Both beers arrived during a period of technological advancements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that allowed brewmasters to diversify and expand their recipes. As commerce and colonial expansion increased, beer became involved in intercontinental trade and recipes needed to be tweaked to allow for the sometimes months-long journeys to distant ports. During this period we saw the debut of strong and old ales, India Pale Ales, and others. Barley wine made its appearance under the guise of old ales in the early 18th century when brewers tried to create a beer that reflected an alcohol level similar to wine (approximately 12% ABV), hence the name.

To achieve this, massive amounts of malt and an intensive and long boil were employed to generate a lofty original gravity, sometimes as high as 1.120. The first named barley wine marketed was Bass No. 1 Ale from Burton-upon-Trent, England, in 1870. Since then, breweries making British style ale around the world have periodically made barley wines as their strongest ale, and usually release them in early winter around the holiday season.

Both Russian Imperial Stout and barley wine can be velvety smooth but are intense, complex, and multi-layered with an underlying sweetness.

The Russian Imperial Stout, despite its appellation, is also native to Britain. When Peter the Great began expanding Russia’s trade circle, he became enamoured of the local beer during a visit to London in early 1698. This affection for ales trickled down through the generations of Romanovs to Catherine the Great, whose love of the new stout porter variety prompted the Anchor (later Courage) Brewery to brew a high alcohol stout that became known as the Russian Imperial Stout (RIS) in the late 1700s. These beers had their heyday during the 19th century but dropped out of favour (with only a couple of exceptions) as big breweries began to eschew variety and concentrated on lagers throughout the 20th century. They only returned when craft breweries, born in the 1980s and after, began producing long-forgotten varieties.

In Alberta, these beers were largely ignored during the days of the Alberta Liquor Control Board (ALCB) but came to life in the 1990s when Brewsters introduced Blue Monk Barley Wine in 1991 and Alley Kat released Old Deuteronomy Barley Wine in 1998. Brewsters brewed their Russian Imperial Stout in 2017 but have yet to reproduce it. A few Alberta craft breweries now make their own interpretations; however, they are usually only brewed once a year (if even that frequently) and tend to be conditioned for about a year before release. Some are also barrel aged, adding further depth to their profiles. These are also excellent beers for bottle aging and will survive a couple of decades if you have that much patience.

The RIS and barley wine are brewed in a similar fashion and have original gravities well over 1.100 resulting in ABVs which range from 8% to around 13%, with most being at the higher end of the scale. The main difference between the two is the use of chocolate and/or roasted malt in the RIS that provides its opaque black colour and resulting aromas and flavours that suggest dark chocolate, coffee, dried fruit, and/or licorice notes. Barley wine’s use of pale and caramel malts produces an amber colour with hints of biscuit, dark caramel, nuts, and/or molasses. Both can be velvety smooth but are intense, complex, and multi-layered with an underlying sweetness. These beers often have high IBUs (usually 60-80), but don’t showcase the bitterness you would find in an IPA, for example, due to that noticeable sweetness.

Here is a selection of Alberta brewers who make these beers on a semi-regular basis. Some are only available at the brewery. There are also a few imported versions in liquor stores as well:

Imperial Stout

CSPC +787823, $19-21, 4x355 mL cans, 11% ABV

CSPC +857688, $8-9, 473 mL can, 10.4% ABV

$20, 4x355 mL cans, 9.6% ABV

CSPC +842130 $6-7, 473 mL can, 10% ABV

CSPC +811406 $6-7, 473 mL can, 8.5% ABV

$10, 650 mL bottle, 9.7% ABV


CSPC +814668, $19-20, 4x355 mL cans, 10.35% ABV

11.8% ABV

$24, 650 mL bottle, 9% ABV

11.3% ABV


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