By Eric Sturniolo
Navigating the world of craft beer can be a struggle. Stouts, India pale ales, pale ales, porters, lambics, guezes, wet hopped, dry hopped, bourbon barrel aged… it goes on and on. So let’s concentrate on a very important beer word: Imperial.
You’ve probably noticed a lot of beers are called Imperial. Any type of beer can be imperial, but most are stouts and IPAs. But what does it mean? In the late 1700′s, England made some dark beer that was shipped to Russia for Peter The Great. But it spoiled on the trip. So they increased the alcohol to survive the voyage. The members of Russia’s Imperial Court loved it, and a term was born. Today, “imperial” typically means a higher alcohol, more hardcore version of a beer style.
Imperial stouts are all about roasted malt, smoke, caramel, coffee, chocolate, and dark fruit flavors. These flavors are born from specific roasted malts, but to get an even stronger, more aggressive flavor, they can be brewed with actual coffee or chocolate or fruit, for example. The hops add bitterness, which helps balance the toasty flavors. They can be thick, oily, and jet-black, which combined with their 8%+ ABV means it’s best to take your time and sip. As you sip and the beer warms, you’ll find the flavors changing as well. These beers can (and in some cases should) be aged, sometimes up to 5 years.
Imperial IPAs (also called double IPA/DIPA) started on the West Coast of the US at the start of the craft beer craze in response to demand for ever hoppier and bitter beer. The malts and hops used in brewing are similar to a standard IPA, but the quantity is multiplied by at least 1.5. The flavor is citrusy and bitter, intensely hoppy, piney and fruity. The malt is low to medium, but still helps balance it out, allowing the beer to be smooth and easy to drink, even with a typical ABV over 7.5%. Imperial IPAs (and IPAs/pale ales in general) should be enjoyed ASAP at their peak of hoppy freshness.
Some of the best beers on the planet are imperial. On Beer Advocate’s list of the top 25 beers in the world, 17 are imperial stouts or IPAs. Some of my favorites (and must-haves for any beer nerd) are The Alchemist Heady Topper, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand series (stout, coffee stout), Lawson’s Double Sunshine, and Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout. They aren’t so easy to find, but definitely worth the effort.