Taking its name from the enigmatic spiritual advisor and supposed faith healer for the House of Romanov, Old Rasputin from the North Coast Brewing Company is the feature of this week’s review. Old Rasputin is a Russian Imperial Stout, a big, black, and bold style originally from England. North Coast started in 1988 as a brewery and pub located in the historical city of Fort Bragg, California. At the time, Fort Bragg had a population of only 5,000, which hampered the fledgling company’s ability to grow. In order to drum up business, the owners soon concluded that distribution outside the small town and even California would be necessary. The following year, they began distributing to North Carolina after being contacted by a distributor there who had visited California and tried their products. Eventually they began shipping to other states as well, but growth continued to be slow and shaky for years. In 1994, North Coast expanded their brewing capacity to the conservative amount of 7,000 barrels, not wanting to take too great a risk by investing in a larger system early on. Ultimately, the slow-and-steady approach proved to be key, as other more ambitious start-up craft breweries went out of business in the early years of the craft beer movement. In 1996, North Coast acquired the rights to Acme Brewing Company, which had been founded in San Francisco in 1907. Acme had been a successful brewery for decades, owing in part to their prolific and innovative advertising. But around World War II, national breweries in the U.S. began to grow rapidly, forcing smaller regional breweries to close or sell out; eventually Acme had to fold as well when its plants in San Francisco and Los Angeles were first bought and then later closed in 1958 and 1972, respectively. North Coast’s decision to buy the rights to Acme was fueled in part by customer interest in retro beers as well as the co-founder’s fondness for Acme’s aesthetics. The company was also pleased to be able to revive a part of California’s history. After purchasing the rights, North Coast added to their lineup Acme Brown Ale (now discontinued), Acme California Pale Ale, and Acme India Pale Ale. Today, North Coast is the 45th largest craft brewer in the U.S., distributing to 47 states as well as to Europe and parts of Asia.
How “Russian” came to appear on a beer style from England begins with an oft-quoted story about Catherine the Great, who had imported a brand of porter from London known as “Thrale’s intire [sic]” throughout much of her reign, which lasted from 1762 until her death in 1796. Thrale’s intire, which was known for being particularly strong, was being produced at Anchor Brewery in Southwark, London. Even after 1781, when the brewery was taken over by Barclay Perkins & Co., Thrale’s intire retained its name for years to come, suggesting that it was the only porter enjoyed by Catherine the Great. By 1809, the brewery had the largest output in the world, with Thrale’s intire (which would eventually be renamed to Barclay Perkins Imperial Brown Stout) as their sole product until 1834. Apart from the sheer amount consumed, its popularity is apparent from the distances which it traveled to reach consumers, being shipped as far as Indonesia and Australia. One of the earliest documented instances of “Imperial” being used to describe porter was in 1821. Although the label initially stemmed from the association with the Russian Imperial Court, it was also used by brewers to indicate that a particular beer was their strongest, whether or not it was ever actually consumed in Russia.
The inclusion of “Russian” on labels took considerably more time, and it appears to have be added for marketing purposes only after exports to Russia came to an end at the beginning of World War I. By 1900, duties imposed by the Russian government on imports had risen so high, and railway rates for imported goods were so much higher than for domestic, that imported beer in Russia became a pricey commodity and led to local knockoffs. A trading company operating at that time, which had dealt in exports to the Baltic region since 1830 and was likely supplied by Barclay Perkins, decided to purchase a brewery in Estonia in 1912, then part of the Russian empire, to begin brewing imperial stout on Russian soil and cut costs. But the undertaking became problematic two years later when World War I broke out, during which time the Russian government banned the retail sale of alcohol. Although wine and beer were not as strictly outlawed as vodka, their availability was spotty. The company’s efforts were further hampered in 1920 when Estonia gained independence from Russia, undermining the reason for setting up there in the first place. Exports to other countries came to an end as well with the outbreak of war in 1914. In the early 1920s, after the Russian market had been lost, Barclay Perkins changed its labels from Imperial Brown Stout to Russian Stout, which then became Russian Imperial Stout from the early 1930s.
In 1969, Courage Brewery took over Barclay Perkins, and what was originally Thrale’s intire became Courage Russian Imperial Stout. Production continued for just over two decades, during which time the style became increasingly marginalized. Courage Russian Imperial Stout was finally discontinued in 1993. By the mid-1980s, the style had become something of a rarity, but it began to make a comeback in the latter half of the 80s when Samuel Smith Brewery in Tadcaster, England began production of their Imperial Stout in response to interest in the style’s history. After its introduction to the U.S. market, American craft brewers started to take up the style as well. According to Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn Brewery, Samuel Smith Imperial Stout was a “touchstone” for craft brewers in the U.S. In 1995, North Coast began production of Old Rasputin. As for the story of Thrale’s intire, Courage Imperial Russian Stout was brought back in 2011 by Wells & Young’s and continues to be available to this day.
Old Rasputin has won over a dozen awards in total, including several at the World Beer Cup as well as the 2012 Gold Medal at the Stockholm Beer Festival. The bottle features an illustration of Grigori Rasputin with his hand raised in blessing, encircled by a Russian proverb meaning “One does not become an intimate friend quickly.” To make such a dark, full-bodied beer, a large amount of pale malt is used to boost the starting gravity, while a smaller but still substantial amount of roasted malt and grain provides the dark color as well as some of the flavor. American versions tend to have greater roasted flavor as well as hop bitterness and aroma compared to those made in England. Roasted grains make beer somewhat acidic, so alkaline water is preferred in order to neutralize the bite. The alcohol by volume is normally in the range of 8-12%.
Old Rasputin is as black as can be. The thick, deep tan head builds quickly upon pouring and lasts for a good long time. In the aroma, sharp, herbal hops are apparent right away; the aroma soon becomes richer and more complex, however, as it takes on hints of cocoa, coffee, bread, and brown sugar. Up front the flavor is bitter, spicy, and rummy, enveloped by creamy, bittersweet cocoa and molasses. The alcohol is hardly detectable, especially early on. Over time, the roasted and mildly sweet malt along with the inconspicuous alcohol combine to produce a vapory flavor reminiscent of fennel seed or licorice. The finish tastes of toasted grains and peanut shells.
From start to finish, Old Rasputin tastes fantastic. It’s rich, luscious, and strongly flavored but still easy on the palate when sipped. It’s not harsh or boozy, though it does retain some acidity from the roasted malt, which, with the delicate carbonation, gives it a fine edge. The bitter, herbal hops are predominant throughout but consistently tempered by the creamy, mildly sweet, and even somewhat ashy malt. It’s simply smooth and savory all throughout, one of my all-time favorites.
Today’s beer was purchased at Sake Taniguchi, located a short distance from Kita-senju Station in Tokyo.