Rachmaninoff, Imperial and Stout

When, a hundred years ago this week, Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades stormed the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, they found and looted the massive imperial wine cellars. But inquiring beer nerds want to know: did they also find imperial stout?

If beers were musical dynamics, imperial stout would be a fortissimo. Every element of an imperial stout is pushed to extremes. The malt is heavily roasted, giving the brew the color of midnight and the flavor of black coffee. Copious hops give many imperial stouts bitterness that rivals or exceeds IPAs. Finally, typical imperial stouts weigh in at 9% or higher ABV, making them over twice as alcoholic as the beers you see in Super Bowl commercials.

Stories vary, but experts agree that imperial stouts get their name from the Russian Empire. One story is that the beer originated when Peter the Great visited England and ordered dark English beer to be shipped to Russia. The beer spoiled en route, leading London’s Barclay brewery to modify its beer to survive the long journey east. Increased hops and alcohol levels had the desired preservative effect, and the stronger English stouts were a hit in Russia’s imperial court. Catherine the Great was especially fond of them. In fact, the competing origin story about imperial stout is that Catherine was the Russian who discovered it in England and then ordered it for the imperial court.  We want to know more about how Catherine and her successors stored their favorite beer in their home, the Winter Palace.

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia and fan of imperial stout

Many American breweries make excellent imperial stouts. Mags swoons over a local cult classic, the cocoa-infused and bourbon-barrel-aged Sexual Chocolate by Foothills Brewing. Seb’s personal favorite is Dark Apparition by Jackie O’s in Athens, Ohio. Other favorites that are nationally available include Ten FIDY by Oskar Blues, Yeti by Great Divide, and—the most Russian of all—Old Rasputin by North Coast.

Old Rasputin, a classic imperial stout (photo by Bernt Rostad)

Like these beers, Sergei Rachmaninoff drew inspiration from czarist Russia. The son of an aristocrat became famous for the melodic, romantic pieces he wrote in his native Russian Empire around the turn of the twentieth century. Many of these pieces, including the second and third piano concertos, the second symphony, and The Isle of the Dead are still staples of the symphonic concert repertoire.

Bolshevism swept Rachmaninoff away with the old regime. After the October Revolution, Rachmaninoff moved to the United States, where his compositional output dried up. From 1918 to 1925, Rachmaninoff wrote no original pieces, and between 1926 and his death in 1943, he wrote only six original pieces. These pieces also include works that contemporary audiences love: his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances, all date from the 1930s and 40s. But these pieces sound different from their predecessors. Terry Teachout calls them “tough-minded, even sardonic in tone” and describes them as “rhythmically edgy and harmonically acerbic.” After the Revolution, Rachmaninoff was never the same.

A Russian commemorative coin featuring Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff was at his old-world best in the All-Night Vigil (sometimes translated as Vespers) he wrote in 1915. The piece is Rachmaninoff’s setting of texts from the Russian Orthodox service of the same name. This piece pairs perfectly with an imperial stout. Like the beer, the Vigil makes a distinct first impression. Much liturgical music in the Western canon is in Latin, but Rachmaninoff’s piece is in the Church Slavonic of the Russian Orthodox Church. Like the beer, the Vigil is rich and sweet. Imperial stouts often are viscous with notes of chocolate. The Vigil also has thick textures—up to eleven voice parts in one movement—but they don’t obscure the beautiful melodies that are Rachmaninoff’s trademark. Finally, both the beer and the music are best suited for a cold, quiet evening. Roastiness and booziness make imperial stouts a beer for sipping; the Vigil clocks in at an hour or more, demanding that listeners carve out a long block of time to enjoy the piece.

Below you can hear the most famous movement from Rachmaninoff’s Vigil. What other music goes well with imperial stouts, and which imperials are your favorite? Let us know in the comments below.