By Jason Margolis
It is possible to find Russian-brewed beer in the US — if you look hard — but you're more likely to find something called "Russian imperial stout." Despite the name, Russian imperial stouts were actually first brewed in England in the 18th century for export to Russia.
The style of beer — a deep, dark stout with high alcohol content — was long dormant in the United States. But it's coming back en vogue, in a big way.
At the Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire, the big event of the year is Kate Day. That's when they offer visitors the chance to drink their "Kate the Great" beer. Kate is the 18th century Russian tsarina Catherine the Great.
This year, about 200 people lined up in the freezing rain. At the very front of the line was John Anastas, along with his uncle. They got in line the night before and set up two chairs and two umbrellas, and made a make-shift tent.
"It was pretty bad out. It was raining. It was really windy. We kind of had on-off sleep, but we made it," said Anastas, who added that he changed his clothes three times through the course of the night.
Their 11-hour ordeal may have been a hardship and a bit extreme, but well worth it, to them and the others in line, to taste a beer that's only available once a year.
"I think it keeps it special," said Tod Mott, head brewer at the Portsmouth Brewery, referring to the once-a-year tradition. "I think it keeps people guessing what it's going to be like this year. And it enables us to keep that, 'Oh, I'm going to get one this year,' (feeling) alive."
Surviving the Baltic passage
Russian Imperial Stout is similar to Guinness, but richer. It also has a much higher alcohol content, about 10-12 percent. This year's Kate the Great is 10.5 percent. The 18th century stout was brewed with more malts and higher alcohol to help it survive the icy Baltic passage from England to Russia.
Tod Mott said the Russian Imperial stout was also brewed with more alcohol to keep pace with Russian vodka.
Mott brews his version of the stout only once a year because the whole process takes five months. He runs a small brewery, and the stout ties up a tank and a lot of equipment used to brew beer. Then, once tapped, the beer is gone in a matter of hours.
Still, it's worth making. "Kate the Great" was ranked as the second best beer on the planet by Beer Advocate magazine in 2007.
Most of the people I met at Kate Day were bushy-bearded New Englanders. New Hampshire doesn't have many Russians. But working at the brewery was Olga Safronyuk from Siberia. She said this mania for Russian stouts definitely doesn't happen back home.
"Actually I never heard about Russian imperial stout before. The first time I tried it was yesterday," said Safronyuk.
Safronyuk said the Russian beer mania was a bit "crazy," but in the same breath, she added, "Why not?"
"I'm proud, that people remember Russia, remember about Russian history," said Safronyuk.
Several other American breweries have also started making Russian stouts. Among the first was the North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif. Its "Old Rasputin" stout debuted 15 years ago. Doug Moody with the company said they wanted a label to catch the eye. I asked if using a crazed picture of Rasputin, the so-called Mad Monk, does that.
"Of course it does," said Moody. "And that wasn't an accident. The story of Rasputin leant itself perfectly to this beer."
The story of Rasputin is that of perhaps one of the most bizarre, perplexing humans ever to roam the earth. And there are unsavory stories about Catherine the Great too.
Tapping the keg
When the brewmaster in Portsmouth finally tapped the Kate the Great keg, I was expecting bedlam, a primal release of joy. The reality was more like center court at Wimbledon: a polite round of applause with a few whistles thrown in the mix. The beer drinkers here weren't here just to party. These folks were burrowing their noses deep into their glasses, and debating aromas.
I caught up with John Anastas, the man from the front of the line, and asked him for his opinion.
"It's very nice. It's smooth. You get a lot of dark chocolate, a hint of plum. But the big thing is it's just so balanced," said Anastas. He added that it was worth the 11-hour wait in the freezing rain.
Everyone I spoke with raved about their beer and wanted to discuss the complexity of flavors. These were serious beer people.
I too ordered a glass of Kate the Great. I'm not quite ready to stand in the rain for 11 hours for a taste, or even one hour. But I have to say, after a glass, I got the hype. I was really surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. It was indeed like no other beer I've ever tasted. Was it the best beer I've ever had in my life? Yes, it was.