Beyond Bitter: Defining Imperial Pale Ale

Imperial pale ale is a derivative style, one that could easily be defined less by what it is than what it isn’t.

Dave Carpenter Aug 10, 2015 - 10 min read

Beyond Bitter: Defining Imperial Pale Ale Primary Image

There was a time, not so long ago, when one could go all the way from American pale ale (APA) to India pale ale (IPA) without running across a single other beer style. You’d leave APA at about 5 percent ABV, set the cruise, and let the specific gravity points fly by. By the time you hit IPA at 6 or 7 percent, the landscape had lost some of its malty texture, but dense, expansive lupulin forests more than compensated the senses.

Those days are long gone. APA and IPA are still there, of course, and better than ever, but where once there were vast open spaces in between, now styles blend together into an endless sea of pale ales. Breweries variously refer to this sub-Burton sprawl as double pale ale, imperial pale ale, strong pale ale, extra pale ale, or any number of other vaguely defined terms. As craft brewers continue to slip the surly bonds of stylistic constraint, a whole new class of pale ale has emerged.

What Is Imperial Pale Ale?

Neither the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) nor the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) guidelines have much to say on the matter of imperial pale ale. The GABF offers a starting point in American Strong Pale Ale category:

“American Strong Pale Ales are deep golden to copper… Low caramel malt aroma is allowable. Fruity-ester aroma should be moderate to strong. Hops aroma is high, exhibiting floral, fruity, citrus-like, piney, resinous, or sulfur-like American-variety hops characters. Low-level maltiness may include low caramel malt character. Hops flavor is high, exhibiting floral, fruity, citrus-like, piney, resinous, or sulfur-like American-variety hops flavors. Hops bitterness is high. Fruity-ester flavor is moderate to strong.”


The description toes a predictable line between classic APA and IPA, but it doesn’t really tell us anything we couldn’t reasonably deduce from the name of the category. The style’s numerics are, however, more illustrative. Take a look at the original gravity, alcohol by volume, and bitterness ranges (Table 1) that the guidelines suggest for APA, American strong pale ale, and American IPA.

Reflecting upon the numbers, we see that American strong pale ale isn’t so much a style description as it is a placeholder to close the gap between APA and IPA (although a 5.5 percent ABV pale ale would appear to have no home). We can’t really infer a stylistic definition other than through a kind of “yeah, but” formulation.

Perhaps more illustrative of the style’s elusive nature is that both AleSmith IPA (7.25 percent ABV, 73 IBUs) and Bear Republic Racer 5 (7.5 percent ABV, 75 IBUs) have medaled in the American Strong Pale Ale category at GABF. These are both phenomenal beers, of course, but they could just as easily have won as American IPAs. And, in fact, they have.

So while American strong pale ale offers a much-needed venue in which to judge beers that might otherwise fall between the stylistic cracks, it doesn’t necessarily define a genre. In search of more information, I did the only thing one could reasonably be expected to do. I headed out to sample some beer.


Voluminously Hopped

The drive along Colorado Highway 119 from Boulder to Longmont, Colorado, features high-tech companies, rolling pastoral farmland, and an unnervingly large number of spandex-wrapped cyclists. Upon reaching Longmont, the first thing you encounter is a seventy-year-old silo that has been transformed into a 40-foot tall can of Dale’s Pale Ale, a sure sign that you’ve reached the home of Oskar Blues Brewery, which has crammed big, bold beers into little aluminum cans for more than a decade.

Dale’s Pale Ale is Oskar Blues’s flagship product and the first major craft beer to be sold in cans. Widely distributed from coast to coast, Dale’s is the best-selling pale ale in the Centennial State. But, true to Oskar Blues’s go-big-or-go-home approach, this beer refuses to remain within the boundaries of the classic APA. Billed as “a huge voluminously hopped mutha of a pale ale,” Dale’s typifies a style-bending approach that moves a beer out of one category without fully depositing it into the next.

“We’ve tried entering Dale’s into competitions in different categories,” says Oskar Blues Colorado Head Brewer Tim Matthews, “but it’s a hard beer to categorize.” At 6.5 percent ABV and 65 IBUs, it’s stylistically closer to IPA than APA, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“Dale’s has classic American pale ale qualities that are out of place in an IPA. While it’s definitely a hops-forward beer, all of those pine, citrus, resin, and berry aromatics come in on the hot side, so it doesn’t have quite the same character you’d find in a dry-hopped IPA. Munich and crystal malts lend a rich malt complexity that contrasts with many IPAs, especially West Coast IPAs, which tend to focus mostly on pale malt.”


Tim’s observations bring us to an important distinction that helps define this category more than any set of numbers can: _An imperial pale ale showcases a bolder hops profile than standard APA but retains the APA’s complex malt backbone. _It’s this substantial malt bill that keeps Dale’s 65 IBUs from overwhelming the palate.

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Silver Jubilee

Brent Cordle has a wonderfully verbose job title. As the Barrel Aging, Cellar Series, and Pilot System Manager for Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado, Brent oversees Odell’s extensive barrel-aging program and helms the five-barrel pilot system from which the brewery’s 5 Barrel Pale Ale takes its name.

And Odell knows a thing or two about pale ale. Their 5 Barrel has thrice medaled at the Great American Beer Festival, and Odell IPA took home gold in 2007. The brewery also releases St. Lupulin every summer, a 6.5 percent ABV, 46-IBU hops fest it deems an extra pale ale. In contrast to Dale’s Pale Ale, much of St. Lupulin’s healthy hops load is infused into the brew post-boil. When I met up with Brent in the Odell taproom, I had originally planned to discuss St. Lupulin, but, as luck would have it, something even more special was in store.


The brewery had just released Silver, a collaboration brew with Kansas City–based Boulevard Brewing to celebrate the two breweries’ twenty-fifth anniversaries (Odell and Boulevard opened within 24 hours of one another in 1989). Available on draft in Odell’s eleven-state distribution footprint and in 750 milliliter bottles in the twenty-nine states to which Boulevard distributes, Silver echoes Tim Matthews’s assertion that malt-hops balance is a distinguishing feature of imperial pale ale. At 7.3 percent ABV and 40 IBUs, Silver is well beyond pale ale territory, but this is definitely no IPA.

“We were aiming for a kind of cross between a pale ale and a strong ESB,” says Brent. “Odell strives for big aromas and a huge nose. That aroma is the first thing you experience when you bring a beer to your mouth. It makes you want more before you even take that first sip.”

In Silver’s case, it’s a decidedly fruity, almost strawberry-candy-like burst of aroma hops. It’s a big beer, but with only 40 balancing IBUs, it doesn’t feature the punch-you-in-the-face bitterness so common with IPAs. And Silver’s pale bronze hue is a visual prelude to the serious malt that lies underneath all of the hoppy goodness.

“Our customers have an unquenchable thirst for hops, but they don’t always want the bitterness that accompanies them,” Brent notes. “That’s why Silver and St. Lupulin don’t break 50 IBUs even though they have an incredible hops nose.”


For comparison, 5 Barrel, a classic English-style pale ale features 36 IBUs, while Odell IPA boasts 70. And in this context, Silver’s modest 40 IBUs bring us to another important quality of this category: Imperial pale ale delivers hops without fatiguing the palate.

So, What _Is _Imperial Pale Ale, Really?

Having discussed this elusive style with brewers who produce world-class pale ales and IPAs, I think the style is best expressed not in specific gravity units or international bittering units, but rather more holistically:

Imperial pale ale is a pale ale whose hops aroma, hops flavor, and alcoholic strength have more in common with IPA than pale ale, but whose malt profile and overall drinkability have more in common with pale ale than IPA.

As brewers continue to push boundaries, it’s likely that even more subtle distinctions will crop up to differentiate different sub-styles, even among imperial pale ales. Think of the possibilities: Imperial Belgian pale ale, imperial black pale ale, and imperial barrel-aged pale ale all seem likely candidates for experimentation.

Imperial pale ale might frustrate those who insist on keeping things in nice, neat, little categories. But for those willing to accept a little ambiguity, it’s a great reason to just sit back and enjoy the ride.