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The Flavors of American Imperial Stouts

When you are drinking an American Imperial Stout what flavors should you be looking for? What types of unexpected flavors might you find?

A couple of weeks ago I looked through dozens of reviews of twenty amber beers, picked out the four flavors that were repeatedly used to describe each beer, and analyzed them to determine which terms are most commonly used to describe amber beer flavors. Today I did the same thing for American Imperial Stouts.

American Imperial Stouts are basically just really strong stouts. Of the twenty beers I looked through the alcohol by volume (abv) ranged from 7.5-16.8%, with an average of 10.8%. These are beers to be reckoned with. They include a variety of stout styles – oatmeal stouts, coffee stouts, milk stouts, chocolate stouts, and so forth.

The beers I looked at came from all over the United States. Some examples are Founders “Breakfast Stout,” Deschutes “The Abyss,” Dogfish Head “Worldwide Stout,” Terrapin “Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout,” and Lagunitas “Cappuccino Stout.”

These were the terms most often used to describe American Imperial Stouts:

Chocolate 19
Coffee 14
Roasted Malt 10
Vanilla 6
Alcohol 5
Dark Fruit 4
Molasses 4
Bourbon 3
Caramel 3
Hoppy 3
Tobacco 2
Brown Sugar 1
Cayenne Pepper 1
Cherry 1
Honey 1
Licorice 1
Maple Syrup 1
Oak 1

Here is my breakdown of the results:
I pulled out 18 unique terms that describe American Imperial Stout flavors, compared to 20 unique terms for amber beers. Several flavors showed up across most of the American Imperial Stouts. “Chocolate” used to describe flavors in 19/20 beers, and “coffee” and “roasted malt” described more than half of the beers.

It is clear that there tends to be more experimentation with the flavor of stouts. Who expect to see “cayenne pepper” or “maple syrup” in descriptions of beer? The deep flavor of stouts certainly allows for more experimentation than the cleaner flavors of other beer styles, like amber beers.

How would you describe the flavors in your favorite Imperial Stout?

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