Historically, imperial stouts were highly alcoholic dark ales brewed in Britain for export to Russia as it was a favorite of the Russian monarchy. More recently Russian imperial stouts have become one of the most popular styles for craft breweries, especially in the winter months. It seems that a large segment of craft beer drinkers like extreme flavors. This has led to the rise in popularity of beers with tons of hops (like double IPAs) and malt forward, high alcohol offerings like imperial stouts. Another reason this style has gained so much steam in the craft beer community is barrel aging. Many beers can gain complexity through aging in wooden barrels, especially if those barrels formerly housed liquor or wine. The one issue with some imperial stouts is when brewers overdo it, resulting in a beer that has little going for it beyond the high ABV. I recently joked on twitter that a poorly balanced imperial stout tastes like someone poured vodka into a pint of Guinness. Fortunately some brewers focus on balance, delivering a beer that is high in alcohol but still complex, drinkable and delicious.
It is no surprise that Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project in Somerville, MA focuses on balanced flavors with their new Russian Imperial Stout Barbapapa. Not to be confused with their other stout Babayaga (although I could understand if it did confuse you, very similar names), Barbapapa is brewed with a number of dark malts balanced by Chinook hops. They use a double mashing technique on the grains, producing the high initial gravity without the use of sugar or similar adjuncts. Barbapapa is not barrel aged, though it will be interesting to see if an aged version of the beer is released further down the road. For more details see: http://www.prettythingsbeertoday.com/wp/2013/imperial-russian-stout/
Pretty Things Barbapapa pours opaque and black as night with a small tan head. The smell is not overly strong providing a mixture of dark malt aromas, with notes of chocolate, coffee and dark fruits. There are also noticeable hints of alcohol on the nose. The dark malts also dominate the flavor with touches of dark chocolate, mocha, molasses, toffee, and brown sugar. There are some hops in the backbone that help balance the malt sweetness, but this beer is malt forward. The alcohol is also present in the flavor, not surprising at 12% ABV, but it isn’t nearly as strong as you would think for such a heavy beer. Pretty Things Barbapapa has a thick and rich mouthfeel, definitely a slow sipper. The finish is clean with warming alcohol and a touch of malt sweetness. This beer is big, dark, heavy and delicious. It is very easy for brewers to get carried away with imperial stouts and focus entirely on higher ABV. Pretty Things uses balance and restraint to make a beer that is high in alcohol, but still drinkable and distinctive. Grab a few bottles, try some now and then store some for next winter to see how the flavor evolves over time. Hoppy Boston score: 4.75/5.