Beer Department: So what makes a beer “imperial” anyway?

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This is a question we hear fairly often in the beer department. You may have noticed many a beer label with the words “imperial stout” or “imperial IPA” or even more exotic permutations such as “imperial pilsner.” Well, the answer to this question is fairly straightforward but deserves a small history lesson for more context.

Simply put, the term “imperial” means that the beer is a bigger, fuller bodied version of the base style. Imperial Stouts are higher in alcohol and feature much more intense flavors of roast, caramel, chocolate and smoke than their lower alcohol brethren. Similarly, Imperial IPAs are more heavily hopped while also featuring richer malt flavors and, of course, more alcohol. So now we’ve got that out of the way, why use the term “imperial” in the first place?

​The story goes that, during the latter half of the 18th century, the imperial court of the Tsarina Catherine the Great of Russia developed quite the fondness for English brewed porters and stouts. Unfortunately for all those thirsty Russian aristocrats, the beer would often be ruined by the voyage from England across the Baltic Sea before it reached its destination in St. Petersburg. To combat this and to continue exporting beer to wealthy Russians with money to burn, English brewers drastically increased the quantity of malt and hops in their recipes in order to create a heartier, more durable beer that would arrive intact in the imperial capital. These bigger, fuller stouts brewed specifically for the imperial court soon earned the natural moniker of “imperial stout.” The rise of Napoleon and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century interrupted English trade to Russia, though the beer style remained marginally popular in its native England. Imperial Stouts gradually lost popularity and had mostly disappeared before being rediscovered by intrepid American craft breweries in the last 30 years. Today, imperial stouts are wildly popular and serve as vehicles for a wide range of flavor additions and barrel aging. Indeed, the renaissance is so complete that many of the most highly vaunted beers today are imperial stouts.

​Being familiar with imperial stouts, it makes sense why American craft breweries would, when brewing bigger and fuller IPAs, call them imperial IPAs. It is a term firmly rooted in history, albeit the history of stouts. Some breweries use the term “double IPA” and it’s important to know that the terms “double” and “imperial” are interchangeable when used this way.

So next time you’re in one of our stores, take a 

walk on the wild side and try an imperial beer. If you need help deciding, we’re happy to assist you in finding a tasty bottle or two of history for you to enjoy. Cheers!

Cheers! -Eric, Eastgate

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