If you drink a lot of craft beer, you probably know about “special release” beers. Breweries brew an annual beer in limited quantities, then require seekers of that beer to attend a “release party”, where to be allowed to purchase the beer, you get to wait in a line with some rather scary individuals intent on purchasing as much as possible to offer as trade bait for special releases from elsewhere instead of enjoying the beer itself and sharing it with friends.
Southampton Publick House used to fly under the radar, which meant the locals who regularly frequented the brewpub could saunter in like usual, buy a few bottles of the special beer, stay for a meal and fill a growler. Semi-locals with a friend who enjoyed driving out every couple of months (ahem) could be assured as well. 2007, 2008, 2009 releases of the incomparable Russian Imperial Stout? We drove in after noon, had lunch, hung out with the bartender for a while, and drove home with a few bottles of the beer. 2010? Line of hundreds in the cold to get even rarer beers also on offer that day, which we didn’t worry about. Fortunately for me, plenty of the now too-easy-to-get “RIS” was still available by the time we could enter the building, and we even scored a couple of seats at the bar to have a nice lunch — unlike most of the people there that morning, who purchased their allotment and went straight home to see what they could get in trade.
Apologies for the rant, but I was happier when I didn’t have to do so much, you know, work to get a beer I like, perfect for sharing or for a long, cold winter’s night. The Russian Imperial Stout style, developed to survive the long travel times to arrive in Imperial Russia from England, tends to be very high in alcohol and very hoppy, both of which act as preservatives, and very roasty and complex. These beers will mellow with age if kept comfortable, for years if you can keep your hands off them that long. I can’t, which is why I’ve only got the 2009 and 2010 vintages left.
This recent evening, I cracked open a 750ml bottle of the 2010 Russian Imperial Stout for review. I brought a couple of these to friends’ houses to enjoy with a group, but this one I consumed for this review. The things I do.
The Southampton Russian Imperial Stout pours a very, very dark brown, nearly black, opaque. A thick, brown foamy collar is kicked up as I pour, but it drops to a more manageable size fairly quickly. Though this beer clocks in at 10.5% alcohol by volume, you wouldn’t know it from the nose. No heat is apparent, but the beer does give off a vinous, roasty aroma, with a little milk chocolate thrown in for good measure.
Taste? Oh, this “vintage” is full of that. Roasted barley and milk chocolate dominate the flavor, but there’s a defnite citrusy hop bite thrown in as well. There’s no denying how thick and rich, like a milkshake, this beer feels; added to that I’m tasting a rough bitterness from the hops and the roasted grain. This continues long into the finish, which dispenses with the smoothing nature of the chocolate in favor of a rough, leafy bitterness to complement the malt.
You may have figured out I’m very pleased with this beer. Southampton boasts a lineup of excellent, well-executed beers both from the year-round lineup and the seasonal brews, and of course the Russian Imperial Stout deservedly has many adherents. This year’s release happens Saturday, January 29th; check the website for details. While it probably won’t attract the hordes of 2010, which were fueled by a few even rarer releases, you can be sure that all the RIS they bottle will be sold that day. I think it’s worth the leisurely drive, or 2 1/2 hour train ride, to see one of New York’s best brewpubs in the offseason.
I paid $15 for this wine-bottle-sized beer, and it’s worth it. There are plenty of Imperial Stouts on the market — Stone makes a tasty one, North Coast Old Rasputin is widely available, Smuttynose’s version is worthy and usually around on tap, and Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout is definitely worth picking up, but if you can get your hands on it, Southampton’s Russian Imperial Stout is well worth the effort.