Imperial Beer – Overused and Dying Out?

If you’re a fan of craft beer, then you’ve undoubtedly noticed the plethora of “imperial” options on the market. There’s imperial stout, imperial pale ale, imperial bock and more. What does that moniker actually mean though? And is it something that’s here to stay? Let’s delve a bit deeper into the subject to get a better idea of what’s going on.

What Does “Imperial” Really Mean?

For the purist, the term “imperial” should only be applied to one style of beer – Russian imperial stout. Historically, that was the only beer that carried the name as it was brewed specifically for the Russian Empire during the 1800s. Anything else that carries the name today should really be called something else – strong, extra strength, etc. 

The practice of imperializing a brew is actually pretty simple – you just amp up all the ingredients and the alcohol content. Russian imperial stout traditionally had an ABV of between 9 and 10% in order to keep it from freezing during transport, and that has carried over with other styles that have been imperialized. In essence, the process makes the beer bigger, badder, bolder and more potent. 

The Argument for Imperializing

If you’re a fan of imperial style brews, then you can probably think of plenty of good reasons to keep putting out brews in this vein. Those might include:

  • Bolder flavor
  • More alcohol content
  • Bigger taste

It’s true that imperialized brews can certainly be a nice change of pace from run of the mill options. However, they’re not for everyone and there’s been some backlash against the “super strong” beer trend that has been so marked in craft beer in the recent years.

The Argument against Imperializing

Just as there are arguments for imperializing beer, there are plenty of them against it as well. For many people, the biggest one is “why?” Why tamper with a good thing? Another reason is that it risks transforming a popular beer style into something that it shouldn’t be. For example, an imperial pale ale borders on the characteristics of other brewing styles (barleywine for instance). There’s little point in amplifying a beer to the point that it is no longer recognizable.

There are plenty of other arguments as well. One of the fastest growing is “do we really need that many super strong beers on the market?” In the beginning, strong brews were designed to stand out from the crowd, to call attention to a brewer’s innovation and to push boundaries. Now that everyone seems to be doing it, much of that has been lost. “Imperial” brews have become passé to an extent it seems, with many drinkers eschewing them in favor of other options.

What’s Replacing Imperial Brews?

It seems only natural that the replacement for imperial style beverages would be almost the polar opposite. Session beers are becoming more and more popular in the US (they’ve long been popular in the UK). That’s not to say that these lack flavor or character, but they’re made to be drinkable in larger quantities. 

A drinker might be able to polish off one or two imperial style brews before feeling the ill effects of too much alcohol consumption. With session beers though, the reverse is true. The lower alcohol content paired with good flavors means that drinkers can drink more without the same effects. 

In addition to the shift toward session beer, there is also one back toward more traditional recipes. The need for super strong beverages seems to be dissipating, though you’ll still find lots of “imperial” options out there if that’s your thing. 

What to Look for in a Good Imperial Brew

For those drinkers still intent on enjoying their imperial brews, knowing the hallmark of a great brew is helpful. 

True to Character: One of the first things that you need to look for is a brew that stays true to the character of that style. For instance, if you’re looking for an imperial bock, then you need to find a brewery that puts one out that doesn’t simply turn their bock into doppelbock with a different label. 

Avoid Excess for the Sake of Excess: While there’s a lot to be said about trying out an extreme beer from time to time just for a bit of adventure, you’ll want to avoid that in your regular drinking. Drinking an excessively strong beer for no other reason than because it offers a super high percentage of alcohol defeats the purpose of enjoying craft beer. You might as well knock back a shot or two for the same effect.

Know the Basics: Another important consideration here is to know what the non-imperial variety tastes like. That will give you grounds to make an informed comparison to determine just how on (or off) the mark the brewer made it. Before you rush out and pay for an imperial pale ale, sample some of the better standard pale ales on the market so you can be an informed beer drinker.

Don’t Make It Your Only Beer: Imperial beers are rarely good in quantity – if you’ll be enjoying this style of beer, then don’t make it the only thing that you consume while you’re out (or don’t consume more than one). Mix up your drinking with some less hardy beers so that you can avoid the inevitable fall from grace that accompanies heavy alcohol consumption (your friends and the bar staff will thank you).

Is It the End?

Those paying attention to the craft brew industry will have definitely noticed a shift away from imperial styles to some extent. However, this doesn’t spell the end of the style, but simply a move to a more balanced approach. Some of the luster has worn off the “extreme” beer style and brewers are realizing that they need to diversify their offerings to keep their clientele. So, don’t expect to see imperial styles going the way of the dodo but do expect to see fewer options than what you might have found in years past.

Posted on September 19, 2011 and filed under Beer Styles and Trends.