BEER REVIEW: North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
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BEER REVIEW: Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout by North Coast Brewing Company
"Ra, Ra, Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen. There was a cat that really was gone."
If only Rasputin had known that he would be immortalized by a dreadful Boney M song (with equally dreadful lyrics, that I bet you're singing right now). The truth is, Grigori Rasputin was a Russian self-proclaimed "holy man" that befriended a family of power in the early 1900s, and eventually, was viewed as a threat to the Russian empire (I mean, who wasn't?). Consequently, he was assassinated for his alleged actions and behaviour, but more than likely it was because of the wild paranoia people exhibited at that point in history (I wasn't there, but I've read a few books - people were nuts back then). History and politics aside, I suppose he is resting well, knowing that his likeness and namesake is also on a fantastic beer.
STYLE: Russian Imperial Stout
Old Rasputin is one of many beers (but perhaps the most famous one) produced by North Coast Brewing Company in Fort Bragg, California. It's a winner of over a dozen gold medals from various brewing competitions around the globe, and according to the brewery, it is "produced in the tradition of 18th century English brewers, who supplied the court of Russia's Catherine the Great." North Coast scores well on the history exam, as this style was first brewed by Thrale's Brewery in London, for that exact reason. Imperial stouts (whether you call them Russian or not) have a long history, and are much more available (and popular) during the winter months here in Canada. And while we're not treated to Old Rasputin very often, when it does show up on shelves, you best grab some fast, because it doesn't last long - just like Rasputin himself (that's a death joke, not a sex joke, for the record).
What? Too soon?
You know, there's a lot to be said about simplicity. Sometimes it works perfectly, and this is one of those examples. The 650 ml brown bottle features a straight-forward black and gold label that perfectly matches the colours of the beer itself (but more on that later). It features a scratchy image of old Raspy (I'm reviewing his beer, so he's totally comfortable with the nickname), with his hand in the air - either he's waving hello, or we caught him at the tail end of a salute, where he's saying "See ya!" That's due to one of two reasons: 1) He is aware of his impending fate, or 2) He is warning you that this bold beer packs a punch at 9%. There is Russian text surrounding his photo, when translated means "A sincere friend is not born instantly." Poetic. Wait....does that mean this beer is my friend, and I should take the time to enjoy it? Okay. Just before I take a sip, I see the words (in large font): "Never Say Die." Well, if that isn't a pep talk for a beer....
Old Rasputin pours somewhat viscous. It goes from bottle to glass very smoothly, and in doing so, you can tell it has some body to it. As for the colour; well, to be technical, there is none. What we know as the colour black, is actually the absence and/or the absorption of all colour. And boy, this stout is black. It's basically The Abyss: no translucence, no murkiness, no light - just blackness. It pours with a HUGE three-finger head (almost four-finger), with a beautiful espresso colour that is rich and milkshake-thick. No seriously, you'll want to put a straw in it. I almost did, but then I remembered: 9%. Never Say Die. That thick froth eventually whittles down to a foamy cap, similar to when you're halfway through a latte - and just a regular latte, not that chai, soy, mocha, skim, gluten-free, non-fat cup of pretentiousness. Just enjoy a damn latte already. A nice side-effect of this stout is the crazy amount of thick lacing it leaves on your glass. True art.
Coffee and chocolate. You know it. You love it. And yep, you want some more of it. Not unexpected, especially for this style, but boy is it dominant and uber fresh-smelling - much more prominence in this one than others like it. There's also a sweet, earthy nuttiness on the back end. It's like coffee and chocolate are the tag team champions (which, for the record, is an outstanding name for a tag team), and that nuttiness is their evil manager, hanging around in the corner, giving the occasional glare and distracting you every now and then. I also get subtle notes of balsamic vinegar (without a wrestling reference), but not in the way that vinegar is bad for beer. If you've ever had a beer that was unfortunately well past its prime (or just poorly made), you know what I'm referring to.
It pours with a HUGE three-finger head (almost four-finger), with a beautiful espresso colour that is rich and milkshake-thick. No seriously, you'll want to put a straw in it.
My first observation was, "Wow, is this beer soft-bodied." It's just velvety smooth, and has a slight oiliness that gently coats your mouth. Given the potency of the aromas from the glass, I was surprised to find that, in terms of taste, those accents were much more relaxed and balanced. The coffee edges out over the chocolate, and because of that, Old Rasputin has a fairly large bitter profile. The chocolate is definitely present, but a bit more subdued than you might expect, especially when compared to other stouts where chocolate is dominant. Despite it being part of the aromatics, there was no apparent nuttiness observed - if it's there, it's minimal, and overshadowed by the tag team champions.
Once you put a swallow back, there is a MASSIVE coffee bitterness on the finish, like you just downed a double shot of espresso. Not a bad experience if that's your thing (I'm a coffee/espresso fanatic, so this was awesomely unexpected, despite knowing there would be some level of bitterness). It is however, fairly sharp when compared to the beautiful aroma, oily pour and soft mouthfeel. That being said, I didn't find it nearly as belly-warming from the alcohol content as some of its competitors, which is more than likely subdued because of that strong level of roast.
Old Rasputin is a bit of a cult classic - I'm talking about the beer here, not the Russian "holy man." If you frequent sites like RateBeer or BeerAdvocate, you'll notice is has a high average score (for any style), and for the most part, is viewed (and consumed) with great regard. When you know this information going into a beer tasting, it's important to check the details at the door and be objective. More often than not, certain beers have their ratings influenced by mere reputation alone. Some people are afraid to be the person that gives it a bad rating, when everyone else seems to love it. Unfortunately, this behaviour has really become something in the craft beer community - especially for those "rare" ones. I have yet to actually understand what rarity tastes like.
I'm happy to report that regardless of any reputation preceding itself, Old Rasputin is a truly wonderful imperial stout, with a bold flavour profile that will surely appeal fans of big bitterness and rich, dark beers. It's best to be enjoyed slowly, to appreciate the complexity of its full taste experience, if not to take the time on that 9%. Sip it slowly as you throw on a record and marvel at the atrocity that is Boney M. You only live once, or as Old Rasputin says - Never Say Die.