Imperial is a term until recently reserved for beers specially made for the crowned heads of Europe, but now borrowed by American craft brewers and made unfortunately vague. When used to describe beer, the word “imperial” is now becoming widely used to mean “stronger than usual.” The usage is derived from the venerable Russian Imperial Stout brewed in the 1700s by Henry Thrale’s London brewery and later by its successors and others. Originally brewed specifically for Czarina Catherine the Great and the imperial court of Russia, this 10% alcohol by volume (ABV) stout eventually became a widely brewed beer style.
In the 1980s, the imperial stout style reemerged at the dawn of the American craft brewing movement, arguably popularized in the United States by Samuel Smith of Tadcaster, England. Although it weighed in at a decidedly “unimperial” 7% ABV, Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout beer had a deep, rich flavor and came dressed in a very stylish bottle and label. Americans were understandably smitten.
American craft brewers, seeking bigger, bolder flavors for their own beers, started to append the word “imperial” to any beer that mimicked an existing style, but boosted the alcohol level and often the hop bitterness as well. First came imperial India pale ale (IPA), followed by imperial brown ale, imperial pilsner, imperial witbier, and even imperial mild. The creativity that went into the beers themselves seemingly abandoned the brewers when it came to naming the new styles. Any beer style that has been given a dose of steroids is now said to have been “imperialized,” a term that brings to mind the sudden attainment of superpowers by a comic book hero. The term “double,” as in double IPA, is used similarly. Should the brewer feel that imperializing is insufficient, a strong brown ale may become double imperial brown ale, a beer that should certainly vanquish all comers.
Although many of these beers are well made and the prefix “imperial” amuses some craft brewers and beer aficionados, the general public can be forgiven for feeling somewhat confused. A beer that would have been called a hellesbock 20 years ago has suddenly become an “imperial pilsner,” even though the beer in question has no imperial connections and is decidedly not a pilsner. One is reminded of Gallo Hearty Burgundy in the half-gallon jug. According to common beer competition rules, imperial IPA starts at 7.5% ABV, scarcely stronger than regular IPA was traditionally. Although some decry the possible ruination of a useful beer style nomenclature, the horse has clearly left the barn. The consumer should therefore not necessarily expect the best qualities of original beer styles in those that have been imperialized. At best, one can hope for some echo of an established beer style, with some of its positive characteristics boosted along with the alcohol.