Madison's House of Brews is building a lineup of 22-ounce bomber bottle offerings and has its sights set on two big cities. "I really want to get my beers out in bombers, so I'm planning on self-distributing in parts of Chicago and Milwaukee," says brewery owner Page Buchanan.
Among the first beers that Buchanan will take on the road is a bold Russian Imperial Stout he calls Kremlin. It's attracting a lot of attention from those who enjoy big, robust, malty beers.
What is it? Kremlin Russian Imperial Stout from House of Brews of Madison, Wisconsin.
Style: The Russian Imperial Stout is known for its rich maltiness and strength. The style originated in the 18th century as an export from England to the Baltic states and the Russian Empire. These stouts can be quite intense, with varying amounts of roastedness and a range of sweet to bitter flavors. They're most often characterized by a lingering malty finish that is warm, with port-like qualities. This is a strong style of beer at 7%-12% ABV.
Background: Cracking new major markets isn't easy for a small production brewery like House of Brews. It takes a lot of beer to hold shelf space both at home in Madison and in larger cities like Milwaukee and Chicago. If a brewery can't keep up, another beer quickly takes over the open space.
Given this challenge, Page Buchanan is working is to step up his bottling operation. Until recently, House of Brews has focused mostly on kegging its beers since launching in late 2011. "Bottling is a whole new area," he says. "It is a lot more conducive to expansion because there are a lot more outlets. The tap market is brutal."
Buchanan's first step was to acquire a craft brewer's license for the state of Illinois. That's important because it will allow him to self-distribute in the Windy City.
Now House of Brews is moving forward with its release of Kremlin Russian Imperial Stout. This beer is appearing for only the second time, after a brief debut one year ago. "I like big, rich, dark, malty beers, especially those you sip," says Buchanan.
Kremlin is indeed a big beer in flavor and strength. It's made with over a half-dozen malts. At the heart of its dark color and body are specialty grains, including Midnight Wheat and Black Prince, as well as a touch of honey malt. It's also made with four different types of hops -- Summit, Perle, Columbus and Cascade -- because Buchanan wanted the beer to have, as he explains, "sweetness, counterbalanced by the hoppiness, with a background of roastedness."
Kremlin is an expensive beer to make, reflected in its $10-11 per bottle price tag.
A handful of breweries have found legions of fans with their big and bold Russian Imperial Stout special releases. Among the best known are limited seasonal brews like Darkness from Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, and Dark Lord from Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Indiana.
Buchanan says he's a big fan of Old Rasputin, a Russian Imperial Stout made year-round by North Coast Brewing of Fort Bragg, California. "I looked to it for inspiration. Mine isn't quite as hoppy or bitter, but I still consider it as having West Coast hoppiness," he says. The use of Cascade and Columbus hops in particular really jump out on the palate in Buchanan's Kremlin.
Russian Imperial Stout is characterized by robust flavor and strong alcohol content. That strength can be described as "hot" when there is a lot of alcoholic warmth. Kremlin is indeed a strong beer; however, it's deceptive because there isn't much perceived warmth, at least for a beer that's 9.8% ABV. That's at least partly because Buchanan dislikes hot imperial stouts.
Buchanan does like architectural references when naming his beers. So it is no surprise that his Russian Imperial Stout draws its name and imagery from the iconic Kremlin in Moscow, with its Spasskaya Tower and the adjacent St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square.
For this release, Buchanan produced about 120 cases (or roughly 1,400 bottles) of Kremlin. It's currently only available in bombers for around $9-11 each. Buchanan is planning a follow-up batch, though, and some of that will be aged in bourbon barrels. This release won't be available until late summer, and then only to select draught accounts and in a very limited number of bottles at the brewery's taproom.
Buchanan plants to continue expanding his bomber bottle lineup, which now includes Standing Stones Scotch Ale and his Rickhouse Bourbon Barrel Stout (a barrel-aged version of his Snug Oatmeal Stout). He's in the process of designing a label for his new Observatory Pale Ale, a brew that features Galaxy hops. Several more of his regular releases may appear in bottles over the next year. And later in 2014, Buchanan is looking to craft a wheat beer and a wheat wine.
- Aroma: A firm hoppiness among the notes of roasted chocolate malt.
- Appearance: Deep black color with a thin, bubbly tan head.
- Texture: Full bodied with roundness.
- Taste: There is a roasted maltiness to the start, with the flavor of Cascade and Columbus hops providing a solid bitter background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The hops stay around and linger in the finish. There is some dryness; however, it's more about bitter flavor. There's also some warmth from the high alcohol, but not as much as I was expecting from a 10% ABV beer.
Glassware: Enjoy Kremlin in a snifter, and sip it slowly, gently swirling the beer to release its hoppy nose.
Pairs well with: The Russian Imperial Stout goes well with robust and flavorful meaty entrees. Kremlin's hoppy aromatics and bitterness make it a nice match with Gorgonzola and Stilton cheeses. It's also good with desserts featuring lots of chocolate.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Kremlin is my current favorite from House of Brews. It's dark and full-bodied, very much as Buchanan intended, with balance between the sweetness of the malt, and hoppy aroma and bitterness. While I really appreciated the beer's balance, I would have liked just a few more hints of dark fruit, raisin and plum that one often finds in such big malty brews.
Still, Kremlin is a great example of an imperial stout, and one that's very inviting considering how intimidating the flavors and the alcoholic astringency of the style can be. That's why I like it so much -- the flavors of malts and hops are strong and assertive without the alcoholic burn confusing things. It's a little pricey at $9-11 per bottle, but that's worth it because it's so drinkable for being such a big stout. Kremlin is deceptively strong, and not a beer you drink more than one of in a sitting. It should also cellar well.
House of Brews' take on a Russian Imperial Stout stacks up well against Old Rasputin in overall flavor. Kremlin has bitterness, but avoids the harshness that's common when aggressive hopping teams up with very dark and highly roasted malts. While you'll certainly notice the hops in this brew, they are held in check while still providing a wonderfully solid hoppy nose. Kremlin Russian Imperial Stout has great potential to become a sought-after special release, and I can't wait to try the bourbon barrel-aged version.