According to old-school spellcheckers Merriam and Webster, the term imperial means (1) anything relating to an empire or emperor, or (2) something of superior or unusual size or excellence. The first definition was what British brewers had in mind when they started making Imperial Stouts, and the second is why many American craft brewers are using the term for a variety of beer styles today.
Sam Adams founder Jim Koch, current record-holder for the beer with the highest alcohol content (the 2009 Utopias at a whopping 27% ABV), has an Imperial Series of big beers. At SAVOR this year, he explained the origin of the term:
We call it an imperial because that’s become a brewer’s custom. It began in the 1700s when English brewers were favored by the Russian court. Catherine [the Great] wanted English beers and so the English brewed beers for her court, which at that time was in St. Petersburg. The beers had to survive the long shipping up through the North Sea, through the Baltic, up to St. Petersburg, so the English would make really big, highly-alcoholic versions of their beers. They called them Imperial, particularly Imperial Stout, because they were meant for the Empress of Russia.
Like Jim, many American brewers now use the term for any intense beer containing more of everthing—hops, malt, and most importantly, alcohol. Below are some popular imperial styles, examples of each you have probably seen, and your best bet for finding some featured during “official” DC Beer Week events. Got your own ideas? Throw ’em in the comments.
RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT – Following the earlier trend, this style was inspired by British brewers in the 1800’s to win over the Russian Czar. High alcohol content, plenty of malt, low carbonation, and lots of roasted and chocolate flavors characterize these beers. They can have none to some to a ton of hops.
Examples: North Coast Old Rasputin, Victory Storm King, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Bell’s Expedition Stout, Oskar Blues Ten FIDY, Rogue Imperial Stout, Avery The Czar, Weyerbacher Old Heathen, Duck Rabbit Rabid Duck, Mikkeller Black Hole, St. George Winter Stout
IMPERIAL STOUT (or DOUBLE STOUT) – American Imperial Stouts are often quite unique—way beyond Guinness. Many are barrel aged, and many have huge coffee or chocolate characters. Like all imperials, the alcohol content tends to be high in these full-bodied, rich beers.
Examples: Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, Stone 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, Bell’s Java Stout, Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout, Lagunitas Black Rain, Stoudt’s Fat Dog, Avery Mephistopheles, Bluegrass Jefferson’s Reserve, Weyerbacher 13, Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast
IMPERIAL PALE ALE (or DOUBLE PALE ALE) – These rare brews are a variation of an American ale style called stock ale, which are strong, hoppy beers designed to be stored (stocked) before drinking. Sugar is added late in the brewing process to make the beers more palatable.
Examples: Pratt Street Oliver’s Imperial Pale Ale, Southern Tier Hoppe, Route 66 Imperial Pale Ale, John Harvard’s Imperial Pale Ale
Where to look DC Beer Week: Since these babies are available mainly at brewpubs and homebrewers’ events you are probably not likely to find one featured next week. Maybe Wednesday at the District Chophouse but it’s a long shot. Ask the brewer.
IMPERIAL IPA (or DOUBLE IPA) – DIPAs are so en vogue right now. Hopped to the gills, usually aged several months before release, and insanely high in alcohol content, these robust, malty beers are great choices for those looking for a more extreme drinking experience.
Examples: Dogfish Head 90 Minute, Doghist Head 120 Minute, Stone Ruination, Bell’s Hopslam, Victory Hop Wallop, Avery Maharaja, Weyerbacher Double Simcoe, Lagunitas Maximus, Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, Rogue 12PA, Flying Dog Double Dog, Stoudt’s Double IPA, Green Flash Imperial IPA, Schmaltz He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s RIPA, Harpoon Leviathan, Bear Republic Racer X, Bear Republic Apex, Anderson Valley 20th Anniversary